Big Brother is watching you. Photo: Getty
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Theatre: 1984 and The Mistress Contract

Orwell’s dystopian vision is convincingly staged but Abi Morgan’s latest is like a visit to Room 101.

1984; The Mistress Contract
Almeida Theatre, London N1; Royal Court Theatre, London SW1

“Oh, the people aren’t going to revolt,” grunts a Party apparatchik near the end of 1984, a new stage adaptation of the novel. “They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice.” Orwell’s book has the knack of seeming permanently relevant, whether your context of choice is the cold war, Facebook and Google, the British government’s struggles over anti-terrorism measures or the NSA’s trawling expeditions for our metadata. A new adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, effusively praised when it set off on a national tour last September, has at last arrived in London – and what an unnerving piece of theatre it is. Terms such as “Big Brother”, “thoughtcrime” and “Room 101” are shop-soiled with overuse but here 1984 has something genuinely chilling to say.

Stealing a trick from Orwell’s appendix to the book, Icke and Macmillan begin in a kind of suspended future. At one end of a scuffed seminar room-cum-library-cum-cafeteria, a literary group is debating the novel’s hermeneutics; at the other, Mark Arends’s bug-eyed Winston Smith is in the process of writing. The action slips and hiccups between past and present, scenes folded into each other like origami. Some sections are prerecorded and broadcast on a video wall; elsewhere, glazed-eyed actors enact the same nightmarishly banal lunchtime scene over and over again.

This hyper-literary approach is mannered but it does remind you of the book’s disconcerting originality – and also that, for Orwell, tyranny over words is the first step towards totalitarianism. It’s partly the Party’s use of Newspeak that keeps Big Brother in power (“The only language whose vocabulary gets smaller every year!” trills one of Winston’s colleagues). When Winston is forced to rewrite history in the Ministry of Truth, you sense that half the battle will be won if he can simply remember how to sing a nursery rhyme.

In Chloe Lamford’s artfully shabby design, 1984 bears an uncanny resemblance to the year the book was finished, 1948: the drinks trolley might be dispensing Victory Gin rather than Bovril but with light orchestras tinkling on the wireless and a headmistress-like voice bawling announcements from the telescreen, there’s little doubt as to where Orwell found his inspiration, or when. The place almost reeks of boiled cabbage.

It is only in the final scenes that the show loses its hold. Tricked into a confession by the unctuous O’Brien (Tim Dutton, who has the air of a Harley Street dentist rather too fond of sharp implements), Winston is dragged out of the safe house he shares with his lover, Julia (an ardent Hara Yannas), and brought to the ministry’s torture cells. There, in dazzling white light and the goriest of detail, the production stumbles into literalism and forgets a rule perfected by Big Brother: it’s better to be unseen if you want to be believed.

Orwell wrote that Big Brother’s vision of the future was of a boot stamping on a human face for eternity. That might be preferable, I can’t help feeling, to spending any more time with the couple at the centre of Abi Morgan’s The Mistress Contract, whose nerve-shredding obsession with their relationship left me yearning for someone to step in and collectivise it.

The premise is undeniably fascinating: based on an anonymous real-life memoir, the play focuses on two lovers who draw up the terms of an affair with cool legal precision. “She” (Saskia Reeves) will provide “mistress services” whenever “He” requires, including, but not limited to, sex on demand; “He” (Danny Webb) will provide commodious accommodation in return. Both achieve exactly what they want, no other strings attached. Needless to say, over the three decades they’re involved with each other, each gets more – and less – than they bargained for.

The play scores some hits, not least about how dismally circuitous debates about equality have been since the 1970s. Yet as an analysis of gender relations, The Mistress Contract is thin and often – as in its hint that all relationships are a form of contract – clunkingly obvious. Somewhat like She and He, marooned in the glass bubble of their modish Californian hideaway, it feels imprisoned rather than liberated by the concepts it attempts to explore; it’s not helped by Vicky Featherstone’s inert direction, which gives this two-hander the flavour of an extended seminar rather than a flesh-and-blood relationship. “This isn’t A Doll’s House,” She exclaims angrily at one point. On that, I wouldn’t disagree.

“1984” runs until 29 March
“The Mistress Contract” runs until 22 March

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution