Welcome to the world of George Orwell in 1948. The novelist is desperately lonely, slowly dying and haunted by the nightmares of his past, yet determined to put the finishing touches to his anti-Stalinist classic Nineteen Eighty-Four.
We find him in self-imposed exile holed up in a damp cockroach infested hut on an isolated Scottish island, with initially only a typewriter and his powerful imagination for company.
This impressive and humourous new play from Roy Smiles centres on the personality of Orwell himself, and triumphantly succeeds in vindicating him as a tragic hero of the anti-Stalinist left.
Smiles introduces two fictional characters from the novel Animal Farm – Boxer and Napoleon – and two real characters from Orwell’s life – his wife-to-be Sonia Brownell and his old school friend and fellow writer Cyril Connolly.
The play evokes the world of 60 years ago – from its repulsive sexism to the political appeal of Stalinism, and Orwell’s opposition to this.
The play also invokes wider themes such as unrequited love, jealousy, and coming to terms with death. The depiction of totalitarianism in Nineteen
Eighty-Four retains much relevance today – Gordon Brown, with his authoritarianism, ID cards and relentless attacks on civil liberties, seems to have long since learnt to love “Big Brother”.
It is also worth remembering that Orwell did not write Nineteen Eighty-Four as the inescapable future of society. Indeed, as Smiles’s Orwell explicitly states, the novel was “written as a warning to the left – the right can go hang”.
Year of the Rat
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
until 5 April