Orwells '1984' has parallels to reality of present day

"The Thought Police."

"Big Brother is Watching You."


These phrases pop up so often in modern public discourse, we easily forget where they came from.

This is where: from the pages of "1984," the futuristic novel penned more than half a century ago by British author George Orwell (née Eric Blair), which can soon be seen in an unconventional stage adaptation at Empty Space Theatre.

Long a must-read in high school and college, "1984" has added quite a few terms to our vocabulary since its initial publication in 1949. And for decades, Orwell's vision of a totalitarian state engaged in a constant round of wars, propaganda and citizen surveillance has provoked spirited and speculative debate across the political landscape.

Orwell's final novel (he died of tuberculosis in 1950, at age 46) and its catch phrases have been embraced by pundits on both the right and left.

Some analysts see the book as Orwell's repudiation of the socialist politics he once espoused, or more simply as a prescient critique of expansionist Soviet communism. Others view it as a darkly visionary blueprint of how a passive populace can be manipulated and duped by its overprivileged rulers — in any society, including a capitalist democracy. Over the decades, there have also been several non-definitive attempts to stage and film "1984," a tale which unspools mostly inside the mind of its alienated protagonist Winston Smith, a Ministry of Truth employee in the mythic nation-state of Oceania.

Ask Allison Narver about turning Winston's turbulent, increasingly defiant thoughts into a cogent theater piece, and she'll admit it's been hard. But that hasn't deterred the adventurous Narver, whose multimedia production of "1984" at Empty Space (where she is artistic director) begins previews on Friday.

"My first instinct for '1984' was to make it either a one-person show, or an opera," she recalls. But later Narver settled on conveying Orwell's story through an intricate melding of live action, video footage and still photography.

"We're doing it with three live actors, about 20 characters on video, and sets projected on screens," she explains. "But the content is very, very faithful to the book."

Closely collaborating with Narver on "1984" are Seattle playwright Wayne Rawley, videographer Web Crowell, and Bob Bejan, a film-video director and former Microsoft executive.

In addition to the three "live" actors (Adrian LaTourelle, David Pichette and Tessa Auberjonois) many other performers appear in video and photo sequences. Narver describes the latter as "expressionistic and gritty. Usually when there's video and live action in a show, the video wins out. Here they're equally important."

Mounting such a high-tech, monitor-heavy show is demanding and complex. '"By all rights, this should cost us about $5 million — which, in case you haven't heard, we don't have," Narver notes wryly. "We're just figuring out as we go along how to make big, ambitious theater with little money. I've never been so excited or challenged by a project."

One challenge was whether or not to draw direct parallels between 1984 Oceania and United States circa 2004.

"Parallels are already there," suggests Rawley, "and you don't have to make up any. People may think we've made some of these things up, but we haven't."

One theme the script highlights is the omnipresent power of mass media — both in Orwell's fantasy, and, by extension, in our own age. Back in a period when television was still in its infancy as a popular medium, Orwell imagined an omnipresent broadcast system piped into to every home via a "telescreen."

He didn't foresee the invention and widespread use of the computer and the cellphone, or the proliferation of TV as a 24/7 corporate marketing tool. Rawley believes that, like the citizenry of Oceania, we "put a lot of trust into a box that comes into our home and gives us so much news and entertainment. In Orwell's world, the telescreens are lying. In our world, we aren't getting objective truth from TV, because so many forces are controlling it."

Rawley also finds Big Brother's frequent use of the slogans, "You have it good," and "It's getting better" pertinent to our own era. "Those are messages we're constantly getting too. So who is Big Brother in our society today? I think it's corporate America as much as it is the executive branch of government."

"This a story that can raise incredibly interesting questions about the world we live in now," Narver agrees. "Like, what's the role of global corporate media? How do you market a war? Or sell a candidate in an election year?"

But Narver seems wary about pushing any specific political positions in the show. "I don't want to preach to the choir, but to get people to ask their own questions. We don't make any specific references to the war in Iraq, or other current events. We're really doing the book."

For all of its potential political parallels, Empty Space's "1984" will also zero in on two pivotal, personal relationships from the novel: the friendship and betrayal between Winston (played by LaTourelle, a New York actor who began his career at Seattle's Annex Theatre) and his colleague O'Brien (Pichette), and Winston's romance with a young woman named Julia (portrayed by LaTourelle's wife, Auberjonois).

"We really wanted to bring out the love story, because there's a lot of drama wrapped around that," says Rawley. "It needs to be a priority in the play, to make these characters as interesting as possible to an audience."

Can "1984" come through emotionally, with so much hardware and software attached? Narver insists it can. In order to get permission to adapt the novel for the stage, she had to show the final script to the Orwell estate — complete with its many descriptions of video imagery.

She reports, with relief, "They loved it, and are very excited about it. If it works — and who knows? — it's a great model for performing this wonderful book without having to put just one, or 100, people onstage."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Theater preview

"1984," by George Orwell, adapted by Wayne Rawley, begins previews Friday, opens Jan. 28 and runs through Feb. 28 at Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle; $25-$40, $10 for patrons under 25 (206-547-7500 or www.emptyspace.org). Note: Empty Space also plans educational programs for this show aimed at local high-school students. For details call 206-547-7500.