By Jack Peat 

In an information economy where our personal data is wilfully publicised, recorded and used for political and corporate gain, the question of whether we are living the prophesied dystopian theories of Nineteen Eighty-Four is more poignant than ever.

George Orwell’s timeless work paints a frightening picture of official deception, secret surveillance and manipulation of history by a totalitarian, authoritarian state. A world where language is a heretic tool that be controlled and used. Words with negative meanings are removed as redundant, “bad” becomes “ungood”,  expressions of freedom, individuality, and peace are discarded and thoughtcrimes are committed by even the most loyal party members.

The party has eyes and ears everywhere. Two-way telescreens occupy every room, undercover agents employed by the Thought Police occupy public spaces and all written correspondence is read by the government before being delivered. Along with surveillance, other weapons such as nationalism, futurology and censorship are used to control human machines that are taught to live without thinking.

Although this is a far cry from the world we live in today, indications that a 21st century Orwellian war on basic liberties is underway are becoming more prominent by the day. After watching 101 minutes of Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s intriguing stage adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was the final line, read by a historian observer of Winston’s diary, that struck me as the most thought provoking:

“How did the party fall? Wouldn’t it be in their interest to restructure things?”

Adapting dystopia

The west, constantly at war, has become a corporate machine run by a political elite that is hell bent on maintaining status quo. We wilfully feed the system information without fully understanding the consequences of doing so. As we document our lives we create digital identities that by their very nature are exposed to exploitation.The problem is, “people are staring at their screens too long to look up”.

After revelations of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program and similar operations at the UK’s GCHQ the world suddenly became more aware of the more sinister side of the internet, modern communications and corporate and political interference with our personal data. Edward Snowden, exiled for his participation in publicly exposing the back door surveillance activities, demonstrated what happens when an individual is considered a ‘threat’ to state control. Like his Wikileaks counterpart Julian Assange (the 21st century’s answer to Emmanuel Goldstein), who is still in political asylum for exposing war crimes, he has to rely on a small number of ‘heretics’ operating underground as a ‘fifth estate’ exposing the stuff that’s too shameful to discuss on PMQs.

But the government is no longer the sole perpetrator behind our totalitarian state. Corporations have become parasitic, breeding off capitalist structures that allow relentless growth at the expense of the majority. Oligarchs now rival heads of state and, as Toby James is in the process of documenting, corporations control most of the basic necessities of life; from pharmaceuticals to food, drink and more recently, the internet.

This is primarily problematic because the internet indicates a restructuring of society, one that is orchestrated on the terms of corporations. What’s more, we are wilful participants. In creating our own internet identity we are at best exposing ourselves to a relentless marketing pursuit and at worse leaking our personal information into the hands of the government. But in making a deal with the devil, are we aware that we have wilfully given in to constant government surveillance and monitoring? Next time you update your Facebook status, remember that the telescreen doesn’t just submit, it receives.

Macmillan and Icke

A theatrical adaptation of a renowned work such as Nineteen Eighty-Four must be just that; an adaption. It must ask; what can the stage add? How can one adapt the work so it is relevant to modern audiences? For that reason, Macmillan and Icke started with the appendix, a chapter often skipped by readers but one which essentially outlines the parameters for future adaptations of the novel.

‘The Principles of Newspeak’ appendix claims that as long as we have a nuanced, expansive system of language we will have freedom and the possibility of dissent. As author Laura Frost explains, a crucial part of the Snowden case is technology as a conduit of ideas, as a form of liberation. Using this as a narrative, the Headlong Theatre production frames Nineteen Eighty-Four within the fictional discovery of Winston’s “diary” by historians. Together they try to decipher whether Winston’s tale is a work of fiction or, indeed, truly terrifying historical fact.

This examination and cross-examination of Orwell’s ideas prompts the audience to question the role of corporations and government in an information age, whether our basic liberties are in jeopardy and allows them to identify totalitarian tools that might be used to achieve such a state.

But where the show shines is its quest to make you question your questioning. Two plus two only equals four because our minds tell us so, but we could easily make that sum add up to five if we look beyond our own stubbornness. After all, if you question the questionable, then you accept that what is right is subjective.

Whichever interpretation you choose to believe, I’m sure you’ll just return to your big screen screen anyway. Or is that just a self-indulgent conspiracy?

Book tickets here

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