Headlong Theatre Co. offers a new take on Newspeak in its adaptation of Orwell’s dystopian novel

By Christina Campodonico

Is it possible to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind at the same time?

This Jedi-level mind trick that George Orwell called doublethink in his seminal novel “1984” may only exist in dystopian fiction, but Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke set out to make it happen on stage.

Orwell’s frightful vision of a brainwashed world patrolled by Thought Police and ever-watching telescreens, ruled by a corrupt political party, and dominated by the omnipresent fear of Big Brother comes to The Broad Stage this week in the form of a radical new play.

The adaptation of the novel about bureaucrat Winston Smith’s attempt to defy the Party’s hold on his life is a production of the U.K.-based Headlong Theatre Company, which is making its American debut in Santa Monica.

In bringing “1984” to the stage, playwrights and co-directors Macmillan and Icke set out not only to dramatize Orwellian concepts like doublethink, but also create a work that would embody the aesthetic shape of Orwell’s novel.

“How do you present on stage a particular kind of brainwashing? How do you put characters on stage whose identity is subjective and whose memory is unreliable and for whom there is no past — there is only the present moment and the Party is always right?” muses Macmillan, speaking over Skype from the U.K.

“We were trying to think — how do you do that to an audience?”

The key, it turned out, was in the novel itself.

When Macmillan and Icke started working on the script for Headlong Theatre, they noticed an aspect of the book that often goes unread — a footnote in Chapter 1 that refers the reader to an Appendix on Newspeak, the truncated language the Party develops to prevent the citizens of Oceania from even thinking rebellious thoughts.

Written in the past tense, the footnote piqued their curiosity because novels don’t ordinarily have appendices and, more interestingly, it suggested that the all-powerful Party had fallen. Most people think that the novel ends when Winston, defeated, pledges his devotion to Big Brother. Even Macmillan had to convince his mother that the novel indeed had an appendix. The addition, however, holds more questions than answers.

“It begs the question, well, what is this I’m holding? What is this I’m reading if it’s not a novel?” contemplates Macmillan. “It could be a document of an un-personing [in the book, an erasure of someone’s existence from history], for instance. It could be a record of a thought crime. It could be a diary. It could be an amalgamation of various different events that have been reconstructed. Or it could be a testament of guilt. It could be all sorts of things.”

That range of possibilities inspired Macmillan and Icke to explore all the text’s latent ambiguities through the very format of their play, which collapses past and present by framing the story of Winston and his lover Julia’s struggle for freedom against a book club discussion of the protagonist’s diary, set in the future. Multimedia film and projection elements also blur the line between time and space.

“So much of the meaning of the book and the complexity of the political statement and the philosophical and the intellectual argument of the book is contained within its form,” says Macmillan. “We wanted to find a theatrical form which achieved on stage what Orwell manages to achieve in the novel.”

Finding that form was not always easy. Macmillan remembers a point in rehearsal when Tim Dutton, the actor who plays the mysterious Party insider O’Brien, suddenly paused to mull over a perplexing thought.

“You could see the cogs turning … and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m just struggling with a question, which is, can I as an actor exist in doublethink?’” Macmillan recalls.

He goes on, as if finishing the actor’s thought: “Can he act simultaneously two different things? Can he be in a scene and be both Winston’s ally explicitly and also his enemy?”

Questions like this dogged the creative process, but keeping options open remained a priority for Macmillan and Icke, even if it meant cutting out dramatically stunning moments.

“There was this really electrifying moment in this workshop where the actress playing Julia just suddenly looked into the camera for fraction of a second, and it was this just sort of leap-out-of-your-seat moment of, ‘Oh my God! She’s Thought Police. She knows the camera’s there. Winston’s going to get caught. This is horrible!’” recalls Macmillan.

“It was a really rich, exciting dramatic moment … and then suddenly [we] just went, ‘Oh, but we can’t have it in the show because it only means that she’s Thought Police.’ The trick was to make sure all of those possibilities were kept alive, that she could be Thought Police and [that] she is Thought Police, but she also absolutely is not,” he continues.

Casting Julia as a person of intrigue rather than a definitive villain opened more doors then it closed, allowing Macmillan and Icke to tease out more uncertainties and double meanings in the play.

“It was like doing a Sudoku puzzle. A lot of it was trying to make sure we never made a choice to undermine any of those possibilities,” says Macmillan.

Gray areas promise to prevail in this staging of “1984,” but Macmillan is no stranger to such nebulous corners within his own critically-acclaimed work, which has dealt with the problems of raising an unruly child (“Monster”), starting a family in a world impacted by climate change (“Lungs”), and battling depression with a list of happy thoughts (“Every Brilliant Thing”).

None of these subjects have easy answers or solutions. Some like “1984” may even confront you with gross contradictions. But Macmillan doesn’t mind the tossup —even under the scrutiny of a live theater audience and in a time when issues of privacy and national security, brought about by figures such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, are on the audience’s mind.

“[Theatre] is a space where we can go with a community of other people and sit in the dark and actually have contradictory, complicated and nuanced ideas acted out in front of us and really wrestle with it,” he says.

“I find more and more that the work I do is trying to find a form — a theatrical form — for the anxieties that I have about the world and my own place in it and my own role in it. A lot of that I don’t have any answers to, but I have some really important questions that I want to shout loud and a lot of them are entirely contradictory.”

If Macmillan and Icke’s “1984” does its job, such conflicting ideas may not just be in your head anymore.

Headlong Theatre’s “1984” officially opens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13 (with preview performances beginning Friday, Jan. 8), at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $30 to $80. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.