Saturday, 19 August 2017

Down and out in London... Mrs Orwell, Old Red Lion Theatre

Behind every great man, as they say, is a great woman but in this case, left behind by a great man, was a very intriguing woman.

In June 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four was published to critical and popular acclaim and yet its author was seriously ill and was to die of tuberculosis in January 1950. Three months before he had married Sonia Brownell, a 30 year old assistant magazine editor, 16 years his junior and very much in love with another man, the unfortunately very married, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The story of George Orwell’s second marriage is a strange one… a marriage of convenience for both the author and his wife or something deeper?

Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell sets out to find out just what it was that drew the two together and is buoyed by a superb performance from Peter Hamilton Dyer as Mr Eric Arthur Blair the man who really was Orwell. Dyer gives an uncomfortably-believable bed-ridden turn as the tuberculotic man grateful for every breath and wincing with every exhalation. In the close confines of a packed-out Old Red Lion Theatre – the run is deservedly sold out – he held us rapt throughout.

Peter Hamilton Dyer and Cressida Bonas
Cox’s dialogue intersperses some Orwellian quotes – including his thoughts on the correct way to make tea – and communicates the mind-set of a man being dragged down before his time, a man still with three good books to give and yet being worn away by unrelenting illness. This man who survived schooling at Eton to live rough in Paris, London and Wigan and to fight against Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, captain in the Home Guard and write some of the most iconic literature of the last century.

There’s bitter brilliance at play and George is unbending in his final days.

Orwell had known Miss Brownell (the well-cast and very impressive Cressida Bonas) as she worked as the assistant to Cyril Connolly, a friend of his from Eton College, at the literary magazine Horizon. A skilled editor and well-educated daughter of a colonial official, some have suggested that she may have been the inspiration for Julia, the heroine of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the "girl from the fiction department" who brings love and warmth to the middle-aged hero, Winston Smith.

The play doesn’t follow this line and I was impressed by the fact that the narrative didn’t attempt to be too specific about the feelings and motivations: all we can know is what happened and the why is open to interpretation.

Author and artist
Sonia is pretty enough that men just visit the Horizon offices for the hope of a glance whilst she is certainly out of ailing Orwell’s league under normal circumstances. George is in no condition to offer her anything other than companionship and she finds more physical comfort in the arms of Lucian Freud, here constructed with playful menace by Edmund Digby Jones. His Freud offers an interesting counter-point to Orwell – “I’m a German Jew, I’ve no need of self-abasement” he dryly responds after another Orwell rant about the privilege he denied himself. There are also a few in-jokes and plenty of references to Lucian’s love of a good fight.

As Freud draws a portrait aimed at conveying both men’s states of mind, Orwell’s publisher Fred Warburg (Robert Stocks) buzzes around with potential deals, a cartoon film with MGM for Animal Farm and an American edition of 1984 with the “newspeak” edited out… “fake news” it’s always been a preoccupation over there.

At first Sonia is repulsed by Orwell’s offer – recognising that what he wants is a combination of a mistress, housekeeper, nurse, literary executor and mother for his young son Richard,  and yet… she eventually agrees and the two are married in Orwell’s hospital room at University College Hospital. His spirits start to lift and there is talk of completing the 48 hours trek to his beloved Jura and then a move to a sanitorium in Switzerland. But these futures are even less compatible with Sonia’s desires than the prospect of physical romance.

Peter Hamilton Dyer, Rosie Ede and Robert Stocks
Marry in haste and repent at leisure. But Sonia inherited a responsibility as well as wealth and she spent most of the latter in protecting the former in the end.

Mrs Orwell is thought-provoking and immersive theatre reminding you of George Orwell’s brilliance and the dramatic era he wrote through. It will also leave you thinking about Sonia Brownell and the help she gave and continued to give post-mortem even at cost to herself.

Presented by the Proud Haddock company, Mrs Orwell plays at the Old Red Lion until 26th August and you may just be able to grab a return or too if you keep an eye on the box office. 

All pictures courtesy of Samuel Taylor.

Ithankyou Rating ****

"...the girl from the fiction department... was looking at him... She was very young, he thought, she still expected something from life... She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated... All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead." George Orwell, 1984

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