An Orwell for every age? My 1984 isn’t your 1984.

“Shouty,” I muttered to my companion as the curtain fell on the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of 1984 this month. But while I’m often disappointed by theatre in Sydney, I usually get my money’s worth in the ensuing days as I ponder the reasons.

There was a lot of shouting in this 1984. I was confused (as many critics were) by the stilted university tutorial at the beginning. I felt assaulted by the flashes and bangs. I thought the torture scenes had the tone of a high school play. This wasn’t my 1984.

But just because Orwell’s masterpiece was a seminal text of my youth in the sixties, why should my 1984 be the 1984 of somebody born forty years after me? When I read the book, the world was lurching from one Cold War crisis to another. Young people of my generation seriously believed that we could die in a nuclear holocaust. For teenage me, Julia was the epitome of sexual emancipation. For political me, 1984 revealed the hypocrisy not just of totalitarianism, but of society per se. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders had exposed the power of advertising: Was totalitarianism so distant from the socially corrosive power of unbridled capitalism?

I couldn’t possibly explain any of this to someone born in 1990. It’s all about me, and I can’t fathom what 1984 means to a me who has never known economic recession, who has probably never been a member of a trade union, whose parents weren’t evacuated from London in WWII, whose foreign bogeymen are Islamists rather than Communists. But the Sydney Theatre Company’s production gave me a clue. It took me a few days, but I got it – sort of.

As a footnote, I used 1984 as a literary prop in my novel Cairo Mon Amour. Check out how I did it here.

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