Arts / Big Brother is watching again

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Ursula Mills as Julia in “1984”… “A lot of audience members hate her,” she says. Photo by Shane Reid

GEORGE Orwell’s celebrated 1949 novel “1984” has once again shot to the top of the bestseller list in America thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread surveillance and the adoption of the “Fake News” slogan by US President Donald Trump.

And in the process it’s given new life to expressions such as “Big Brother is watching you” and “Newspeak”.

“People are revisiting it all over the globe,” Ursula Mills tells “CityNews”.

Mills gets to play the “love interest”, Julia, to Tom Conroy’s Winston, in the coming West End staging of George Orwell’s celebrated 1949 novel.

Describing it as “a blokey story with a few women”, Mills says many people had hoped a stage adaptation might bring in more females, but they [the adapters] wanted to tell a more universal story, a cautionary tale – it’s still true to the book after all these years.”

“It is not the book on stage, but rather a re-telling of the thematic content of the book.”

“’1984′ has always been relevant, but now we have ‘alternative facts,’ which is ‘doublethink’ in the book, we see Facebook tapping into our transport cards – it begins to seem as if we’ve always lived in a surveillance state,” she says.

This production has been unusually challenging for Mills. She, along with the rest of the Australian cast, were auditioned at the end of 2016 in Adelaide. It’s a West End production directed and adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, now re-staged by the State Theatre Company of SA under the associate direction of Corey McMahon, who went to London last year to see a new cast “learn the play”.

The cast of “1984”. Photo by Shane Reid.

Julia in the book is a little bit different from the production, where everything is seen through the eyes of fellow “thoughtcriminal” Winston. “A lot of audience members hate her and, even after rehearsing, it has been hard to really understand the mindset of the character,” she reports, adding that it’s been “essential to remember that the audience needs to relate to the characters, otherwise the story is not relevant.”

But there are a few clues. Winston, for instance, wants to overthrow Big Brother, whereas Julia is a survivalist, a fanatic, but not to the point of wanting to overthrow the government.

“There are a lot of Julias walking around,” Mills asserts. “Julia is not a true terrorist, perhaps that’s her function, to be one of two competing philosophies.”

The first question Mills asked the director was, is there such a thing as love? After all, Julia sends Winston a note that reads, “I love you.”

“Good question,” McMahon replied. “If they’re living in a world so constrained that you can’t have sex for pleasure, you become so completely survivalist that your behaviour changes – how would you then understand what love is?”

They eventually worked out that the direct opposite of love is not hate, but fear.

“Because this is a replica of a production, like doing a musical, it’s been hard to create a character for myself, because I have to do the action of the Julias who came before me, it’s a tricky one to navigate.”

“1984”, Canberra Theatre, July 25-29. Bookings to or 6275 2700.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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