Perhaps more than ever before, the idea of surveillance is now deeply ingrained in our lives, whether it is state-sponsored (Snoopgate, for instance) or personal — the hours spent stalking Internet profiles being a case in point. The insidiousness of ‘prying eyes’, whosoever they might be, is fostering a culture in which we are constantly looking over our shoulders, even if notions of what constitutes privacy are rapidly changing from one generation to the next.
It is now 35 years since the eponymous year of George Orwell’s enduring classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Arguably, the extremes of governmental scrutiny talked about in the book’s bleak dystopia — where even a stolen second of free-thinking respite might need to be accounted for to the powers-that-be — has never come to pass in as direct or unequivocal a manner (and not for want of trying). However, the book continues to occupy pole position as a chronicle of our times (or any other), a metaphor for both the regimented and anarchic aspects of our lives. The book is an exemplar of literary style, and a major portion was written in 1948 while Orwell was suffering from a bout of tuberculosis on the Scottish island of Jura (Fun fact: the red deer population of Jura outnumbers that of humans, 30:1). It was a response to emergent Cold War polarisation, the austerities of war-time Britain and, of course, the realms to which an ingenious imagination fuelled by streptomycin might lead a writer’s impulse.
At a time when the country is caught up in the throes of imminent political upheaval, political theatre seems rather thin on the ground in urban spaces, so a new work rich in political allusions presents a welcome intervention, although it remains to be seen what its particular approach might be. The tag-line for The Company Theatre’s new production Whirlpool, directed by John Britton, reads, “Imagining George Orwell in the times of Surveillance.” In an email interview, Britton spells out the ways in which the ‘Internet of things’ provides for an all-pervasive network of surreptitious sensors, mining data fed into canny algorithms. “This benefits commercial and government interests, rather than our own,” writes the director. He further elaborates, “Orwell could never have foreseen how willingly complicit we have become in these systems, trading privacy and choice for convenience and faux-connectedness. We have come to love Big Brother.”
Orwell has long been a mainstay for theatre practitioners, even in India. Swirling subtexts and intricate interior worlds lend themselves to visceral experiences. Animal Farm is a stage favourite, and recently, Akash Mohimen and Siddharth Kumar’s Under The Chestnut Tree harnessed much of Nineteen Eighty-Four into a fresh tale of art, love and censorship. Last year’s Bengali stage adaptation by Debesh Chattopadhyay, translocated the novel with great liberty and topicality to latter-day Lynchistan, where Big Brother’s slogan is ‘achhe din’ and the thought police scour the streets for the anti-national likes of Mohammed Akhlaq and Junaid Khan.
As someone who is self-avowedly at a distinct remove from Indian politics, Britton worked closely with Manjari Kaul, a performer in Whirlpool and also an associate artist with the Duende School of Ensemble Physical Theatre, that he founded in 2010. The ensemble includes Abhishek Krishan, who has trained at Duende, dancer-choreographer Avantika Bahl Goyal and Srishti Shrivastava. “We had to find witty, direct, complex, entertaining, provocative ways to stage the play, while still operating within an intellectual framework,” Britton says, of the devising process. Relooking at Orwell, especially through the lens of his masterwork, was a conceptual challenge. Whirlpool isn’t a straight-up adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it mangles the novel’s themes to draw out its essences which, according to Britton, involved the team being “ruthlessly dishonest and manipulating the source material without ever acknowledging that you are doing so.” That is certainly a sobering thought to enter the performance with.
Whirpool will be staged at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on April 14