1984? – Timely staging of a political novel

Posted by Kaahon Desk On July 1, 2018

The second show of Swapnasandhani’s ‘1984?’ has recently been staged at Minerva Theatre on 20th June 2018. Based on George Orwell’s sensational eponymous novel, the play has been justly contemporized by the notable thespian Debesh Chattopadhyay, who also happens to be the director of this play on Swapnasandhani’s invitation. Almost 25 members of the group have participated in the play.

Published on 1949, George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is considered to be one of the greatest novels ever published in English. It has such an immense influence over the language that many words and phrases that originated in here, have successfully permeated the colloquial vocabulary, such as, Big Brother, Thoughtcrime, Doublethink, Telescreen etc. The novel anticipates such a state power in the dystopian future that controls everything, even the thoughts of its citizens! In the context of, not only the present state of our country but also the continuous rise of unopposed rapacious state powers throughout the world, this novel appears to be highly relevant. Incidentally, there is an apparent similarity between the subject matters of the two most famous novels by Orwell, namely, ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’, in terms of the depiction of the helplessness of the individual against collective interest, revolution and betrayal, severe class discrimination, compulsory routine work etc. Although adaptations of ‘Animal Farm’ are quite common in Bengali theatre, the same has not been the case with ‘1984’. That is why the expectation from this production is very high.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

The play more or less follows the original text without any attempt of independent flight. The setting is a totalitarian super-state where “Big Brother is watching you”, which means, the citizens of this state are under constant surveillance through the Telescreen (Two-way television). The individual has no right of independent thinking. Even entertaining thoughts against the state is considered to be ‘Thoughtcrime’. The ‘Thought Police’ is there to psychologically monitor the citizens always. Only the principles beneficent for the state’s interest are being bred in people’s minds, such as, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.Children are being advised to always keep an eye on their parents and notify the ‘Thought Police’ if they find something unusual. People are subject to multiple regulations here, only the Party should be loved, individual relationships or sexual activities are punishable offences, even holding hands while walking is prohibited. The protagonist of the play Gautam Islam (Ujjwal Malakar) is a general citizen and party member. His duty in the Ministry of Truth is rewriting of history, which means reshaping history in accordance to the state ideals. Gautam hates the Party in his mind and dreams of the extinction of the system. He secretly keeps a record of the historical informations that are being obliterated in his diary for the next generation. Gautam starts writing the diary on 4th April of 1984 but becomes puzzled if the year is indeed 1984. That is the reason behind adding the question mark (?) in the title. He develops a feeling of love towards his colleague Lopamudra (Subhanita Guha). The play traces their act of rebellion and how far it pays off.

Here ‘Big Brother’ symbolizes power and modern technology. The terrifying futuristic picture depicted in Orwell’s novel is no longer imaginary but a stark reality in our country today. The state has put us under consistent surveillance, monitoring our action, speech, movement and even food habit. Our personal data are being exposed and collected by devious means. We are constantly adjusting our thoughts, food habits, movements to conform to the dictates of the state, being ensnared in its own matrix. In this context, this production is thoroughly relevant and needed. The play inspires us to be like Gautam.

Sound (Anindya Nandi), music (Shreyan Chattopadhyay) and light (Dinesh Poddar) have been remarkably utilized in the play. The deliberate cramped stage setting, designed by Sanchayan Ghosh, produces a very claustrophobic environment that the play highly demands. The wonderful combination of the light and sound coupled with such a fitting stage setting elevate the production to a prominent height right from the start. The use of a harsh metallic sound in the background gives us a feeling of both fear and uneasiness. The speech, light and sound that can be observed immediately after entering the theatre forces us to believe that we are already under the Big Brother’s surveillance. The sense of apprehension that it so engenders engages us with the narrative even before the play starts. The costume design by Rajib Bardhan and Anik Ghosh is appropriate.

There is not much to comment on the acting part. As a matter of fact, Ujjwal and Subhanita are both very promising actors but their acting somewhere falls short to the rhythm that the light, sound and stage collectively produce throughout the play. We sincerely hope to witness great works from them in near future. A close understanding among the 25 participants can be observed, their acting is methodically perfect, diction polished, movement experienced. But a distinguishable characteristic is present in their acting which is just another example of master-influenced art practice. Although this tendency is common in almost all reputable groups in Bengali theatre and it still persists.

Arpita Ghosh and Debshankar Halder have done the voice-over in this play. Both of them have performed it with equal sincerity and care which has added another dimension to the play.

The contemporized script of the play never fails to conform to the depth of this classic novel by Orwell. Adapting such a text on the stage at present deserves appreciation indeed. A demanding plot, an appropriate stage design, fitting costume, exceptional light, sound and a bunch of new faces- consolidating all these crucial parts admirably the director brings us the play that takes us to the desired dystopia. But all these arrangements and technical accomplishments succeed in being effective only because of the plot! Without this plot which bears such great depth, all these embellishments would have appeared futile and hollow. Therefore, a sense of disorientation overtakes our mind. Is it because the script, unable to overcome the boundary of the novel, has failed to attain theatric individuality? Perhaps it has been purposefully done by the writer-director. But the way the novel has achieved dramatic text form demands equal admiration. We sincerely do believe that by making such comments we are not committing any ‘Thought crimes’ for that matter.

Eventually, we hope that this play will inspire the audience to think, withdrawing the curfew of the mind. Amidst such intolerable set of circumstances that we are in now, this production duly gives us a faint hope of change.

Pradip Datta
A post-graduation diploma holder of the Department of Media Studies, University of Calcutta, he has been a theatre activist in Bengal for the last twenty five years. He is a freelance journalist by profession. Besides theatre, his passion includes recitation, audio plays and many more.


Translation: Rishav Dutta

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