Eric Arthur Blair aka George Orwell (1903–1950) was born in Bengal, India, but raised in England. He went to increasingly fine schools as a “charity boy” (on scholarship) after which, at loose ends, he spent five years in Burma as a policeman. Determined to write, the young man then lived in London and Paris taking menial jobs to support his first book Down and Out in Paris and London. In order not to embarrass the family, Blair adopted the nom de plume Orwell. As he says in the play, “Mr. Blair was Mr. Orwell before Mr. Orwell became himself.”
Politics took hold during and after the writing of his second effort, Burmese Days, a severe look at British colonialism. Two years later, he joined a group fighting against General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Best known for later, political novels, Animal Farm (whose two main pigs were said to represent Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky) and 1984, Orwell addressed imperialism, fascism and communism with passion and integrity as author and journalist. Himself a socialist, the author declared that Animal Farm was “a book about totalitarianism.” (Look up your isms.)
The fictitious premise of Joe Sutton’s play is an American book tour for Animal Farm shepherded by twenty-something, attractive Carlotta Morrison, a stand-in for editor Sonia Brownell, whom Orwell married a short time before his death of tuberculosis. A frisky widower who, in fact, had an open marriage, the author matter-of-factly proposes to Carlotta five minutes into the piece. Their push/pull continues throughout adding an appealing frisson without venturing outside British reserve or becoming unlikely.
Orwell accepted this uncomfortably public role in order, one surmises, to promote political beliefs “I did not agree to be muzzled” while Carlotta presses for concentration on Animal Farm “…people want you to say Communism is evil” and humanizing her charge in order to sell books. Segueing (with lighting) back and forth between excerpts of his lectures and often combative, sometimes flirty private conversations, the play both sketches Orwell’s background and illuminates the era.
The protagonist represents England/Europe in the aftermath of WWII and deprivations it continued to suffer affecting its politics. (A visual reminder of this is shocking.) The somewhat idealistic Carlotta thinks, “We’re in the midst of choosing what’s best for the human spirit.” A single allusion to the House Un-American Activities Committee echoes.
It’s neither necessary to know Orwell’s history nor to have read Animal Farm in order to enjoy the play. In fact, this is probably the best, most comprehensible retelling of the latter you’re likely to hear. It is helpful to know something about history and these political philosophies, however.
Playwright Joe Sutton has given us a completely credible character in this stubborn, Eton-styled Orwell (Jamie Horton) with strong beliefs and an appreciative eye. The presence of Carlotta (Jeanna de Waal) offers American public opinion, a balance to rhetoric, and the personal. Actor Casey Predovic acts as occasional off stage heckler and eventual reassurance of Orwell’s effect on people. A piece for those who think.
Jamie Horton, who here closely resembles his character, is marvelous. If the actor is not British, he could certainly pass in rarefied circles. Mannerisms are polished and conservative. Horton has a twinkle in his roving eye where apt and a pitch perfect, self depreciating laugh. He looks into our eyes when lecturing and at Carlotta with palpable attention. Orwell’s personal revelations are moving. Thought is evident; listening occurs in real time. A thoroughly engaging performance.
Jeanna de Waal offers just the right balance of historically subjugated Vassar smarts, ambition, femininity, and youth. She executes pauses, hesitance and switchbacks effectively and convinces us of some attraction for her charge.
Director Peter Hackett gives us two such distinctly different characters we can almost see class, geography and history . The piece is elegantly paced. Flares and reflections read equally well.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Northern Stages presents
Orwell in America by Joe Sutton
Featuring Jamie Horton & Jeanna de Waal with Casey Predovic
Directed by Peter Hackett
Through October 30, 2016
59 East 59th Street