1984: Dystopic play looks too timely to be true


Julia, Winston, and O'Brian in 1984 at Braeburn Theatre on March 20, 2023.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

George Orwell wrote his dystopic novel, 1984, in 1944, a year which still presented the possibility of a dangerous tyrant taking over Western Europe. It was and still is, a cautionary tale aimed at rousing public awareness of the urgent need to defend the freedoms we enjoy.

1984 the play didn’t go on stage until 1983 when two young British playwrights, Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, took on the task of transforming the novel into a riveting play which was first performed in Nairobi in 2022 by senior students at Braeburn school. And as of last night, it just re-opened at Braeburn Theatre to run through the weekend. But it’s been transformed again in a more minimalist, Brechtian style by a new theatre company called Under Debate (UD).

Some UD members have come from Kads (Kenya Amateur Dramatics Society) including the show’s director, Lee Crew. Another UD member is Daniel Hind, the lead drama teacher at Braeburn and the one who directed 1984 in 2022. Now, in the UD version of Orwell’s classic, he stars as Winston, where there’s another transformation for us and especially his students to see how outstanding an actor he is.

So much of what happens to Winston in 1984 the play is enacted non-verbally. It’s the way he glides into a forbidden relationship with Julia (Rotem Yani-Cohen), the way he struggles with who to trust or doubt, and the terrible consequences of his making the wrong choice in trusting O’Brian (Adrian Massie Blomfield).

O’Brian is an ingenious villain and easily the most complex and sinister character in the play. One can easily wonder whether he is Big Brother’s top advisor or even Big Brother himself. It’s a possibility since we never actually meet Big Brother, in person.

Yet he has the public in perpetual mental lockdown. Whether they are all true believers in The Party and in Big Brother or they simply live in fear of the consequences of being seen by his omniscient surveillance system in violation of his tyrannical rule, one can’t be sure. Either way, that debate is a form of doublespeak, a term Orwell invented to mean to obscure or confuse by the sheer ambiguity of the issue or its possible resolution.

Either way, Massie Blomfield masters O’Brian’s doublespeak to the tee. Initially we see him walking silently, as if fully detached from the space he circulates through. Then he converses with Winston, covertly calling him to a meeting of the Brotherhood, a group of radical activists who aim to bring down Big Brother and his government.

It’s a hoax, of course, but Winston is naive enough to believe O’Brian is who he claims to be, especially as he gives Winston a subversive book, something not allowed to be read in Big Brother’s universe. But Winston vows to be totally self-sacrificing out of loyalty to the rebels’ Brotherhood. His vows are what provide O’Brian with evidence on which to torture the guy to the point where his fate is now sealed.

For me, Julia also seemed to be an ambiguous character. At once, she works for the Party, apparently loyal to Big Brother, so when she slips Winston an ‘I love you’ note, we must wonder how she knows this. They never meet until she tells him there is a place where Big Brother doesn’t surveil, but how does she know this? In any case, they meet and she throws herself at him sexually, and like most men would do, he follows her lead, and feels he loves her too.

Rotem’s Julia may truly have fallen in love with Winston, but then how is it that O’Brian’s police officers know exactly where to come to grab him from his lover’s arms and take him to be tortured? (Remember Delilah’s betrayal of her lover Samson in the Bible?). Rotem plays Julia with her cards so close to her chest, you really can’t know (to the actor’s credit) if she is innocent of doublespeak or not.

The cast is amazing. So is the minimalist set design which is spare yet effective, semi-abstract and almost surreal. In the end, we feel like Big Brother has won this round. There’s no hope in sight except at the play’s outset where we meet tourists in 2050 who, by their very existence, we can surmise that Big Brother must have been overthrown and the Party replaced by corporate capitalism presenting itself as the new phoenix rising.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.