The Theatreguide.London Review
Orwell - A Celebration
Trafalgar Studios Summer 2009
This salute to George Orwell is an opportunity to discover or rediscover one of the great prose stylists of the Twentieth Century.
It's not an especially theatrical experience, being made up of selections from his essays and novels, but the performances are clear and the selections, edited by Dominic Cavendish, give a good feel for the essential Orwell.
The evening consists of four pieces, the longest being a condensed version of Orwell's 1939 novel Coming Up For Air. It's performed by Hal Cruttenden as the middle-aged insurance salesman who escapes from his shrewish wife and his fears of the oncoming war into Proustian memories of an idyllic childhood and then to an impulsive visit to the village he grew up in, which is of course despoiled and unrecognisable.
Adapter Cavendish has cut all the overt socialism and some key secondary characters in the novel, leaving the focus on the twin revelations of the impossibility of recapturing the past and the narrator's own smallness of mind and soul.
Actor Hal Cruttenden skilfully guides us through this journey, slowly stripping away the mask of jolly fat man to reveal first sentimentality, then disappointment, and finally emptiness.
The second half of the evening includes two classic autobiographical essays based on Orwell's experience in Burma, with Ben Porter speaking Shooting an Elephant and Alan Cox telling of A Hanging.
Both are deserved classics of description, subtle revulsion and the unforced extension of a small incident into a damning metaphor for the colonial experience. But, despite the clear and intelligent performances, they remain literary experiences rather than theatrical events.
The one fully dramatised part of the evening has Porter and Cox acting the interrogation chapter from 1984, in which Cox's torturer forces Porter's Winston Smith to accept that the Party controls not only policy but reality.
That some parts of Orwell's dystopian prediction have been proven as inaccurate as others were scarily prescient does not keep the scene itself from being powerfully harrowing.
This is not what you could call a fun night out, but an interesting and satisfying one for Orwell fans and those wanting an introduction that may well lead them to the books.
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