When we think about people who risk their lives daily in their careers we think of firefighters, policemen and soldiers – but what about journalists, authors, poets, bloggers and publishers? For some, writing is a dangerous and sometimes life-threatening choice of career. Every year hundreds of writers are persecuted, imprisoned, forcibly exiled, threatened, attacked and even murdered for their work.
In an article for English PEN, a charity who defend freedom of speech, Sanjuana Martinez highlights the dangers journalists face in Mexico. In recent years 120 journalists have been killed – often in violent state-sanctioned attacks. Martinez writes: “As journalists, we have words. The people attacking us have bullets.” With those words they speak out against corruption, injustice and government propaganda. It is this commitment to writing the truth which makes them determined to carry on despite such extreme intimidation and hostility.
Similarly it is Winston’s character in Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, who desperately clings on to the truth, to his sanity and to an ever-eroding language while under the thumb of a totalitarian state. This adaptation of 1984 by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan for the Almeida Playhouse Theatre makes for a tense, disorientating 101 minutes. Its ear-piercing sirens and oppressive blackouts put the audience at the mercy of the ominous Big Brother, the all-seeing dictatorial leader of the party, who ensure freedom of thought is repressed by restricting freedom of speech.
In the opening scene Winston nervously hovers over his diary, fully aware that to put pen to paper is to effectively sign his own death warrant. The fear brings on a nosebleed and blood and ink mingle symbolically on the page, which is magnified for the audience on a screen behind the stage. At its heart 1984 depicts a war of the words where information is manipulated and massacred and those who don’t adhere to Newspeak, the language of the party, are disappeared and executed.
The play is sandwiched by two scenes where a group of people, emulating a modern day book club, argue over the significance of Orwell’s text and Winston’s diary. This is poignant because like us in the audience they have the freedom to read, analyse and criticise the text – without censure or self-censorship, whilst Winston’s confusion and hesitancy remind us that in other parts of the world reading and writing are subversive acts – forms of protest inseparable from politics.
Last year international media reported the disappearance of 43 students who attended Ayotzinapa Rural Training College in Mexico - whose whereabouts are still unknown. In an essay published in May of this year Elena Poniatowska reflects on the incident and the threat posed by literate students: “A literate country is one that can demand and denounce. A literate country can be disobedient.” These forced disappearances or “levantón” as they are known in Mexico and the ongoing attacks against those whose only crime is to pick up a pen echo a repression perilously close to the action playing out on the stage.
The drab scenery and menacing yet monotonous repetitions throughout the script are stark reminders of the loss of creativity and diversity that occurs once a state has total control over the consumption and dissemination of language. It was a relief to give applause and leave that sinister world behind the curtain for the next brave audience, but for some, Orwell’s dystopian nightmare is one they can’t wake up from.
1984 is at the Playhouse Theatre until 5 September.