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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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis