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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

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