‘Love is dangerous – it means you have something to lose’: what 1984 can teach us about sex, pain and fear

<span>Composite: Stocksy United/Guardian Design</span>
Composite: Stocksy United/Guardian Design

How do you get inside someone else’s head? It’s a question at the heart of George Orwell’s 1984, as the protagonists struggle against a system that seems to have brainwashed everyone else. The space inside their heads becomes both a bastion and a battlefield.

As the character Julia says: “They can make you say anything – anything – but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you.” Played by Cynthia Erivo in a new dramatisation from Audible, the words are asked rather than stated, as if she’s trying to convince herself.

The question of how you get inside people’s heads has also been central for the creative talent behind the new dramatisation: director Destiny Ekaragha and the writer Joe White. It has been key to understanding Orwell’s dystopian nightmare, and also key to delivering the story into listeners’ heads with a new, fully-immersive audio format – starring an ensemble cast that also includes Andrew Garfield, Andrew Scott and Tom Hardy.

Of course, in some respects, 1984 already exists inside people’s heads, regardless of whether or not they’ve actually read it, thanks to its numerous ideas and concepts that have permeated the popular consciousness. The novel’s hold on the public imagination is so powerful that it can be easy to overlook how it also speaks to individual minds and imaginations. People relate to 1984 on a deeply personal level, and this is what Ekaragha and White have tried to tap into by drawing out the intimate, emotional and visceral dimensions of Orwell’s masterpiece – the characters’ guilt, their fears, loves, pain, pleasure, and the repression of their own minds and bodies. It makes for a very physical listening experience.

“The interesting part of dramatising it is grounding it in people – and it always has to exist through bodies,” says White, whose playwriting credits include Blackout Songs at the Hampstead Theatre and the Audible drama The Nox.

Physical bodies are critical to 1984 because the Party’s efforts to get inside people’s heads so often involves the infliction of pain. Whether physical, mental or emotional, pain is the extreme point where the political and the personal meet. As Orwell memorably writes: “In the face of pain, there are no heroes” – a line voiced by actor Andrew Garfield, who plays protagonist Winston Smith in the new dramatisation.

1984’s infamous torture scene is difficult enough to capture in written words or film adaptations, never mind in an audio format – but thanks to White’s script, Ekaragha’s direction and the chilling intimacy between two actors using only their voices, the new production renders it into a perfectly visceral and claustrophobic nightmare. The effect is further enhanced by a haunting score from composers Matthew Bellamy and Ilan Eshkeri.

By foregrounding mental and physical pain, the audio production forces us to think about our own limits, fallibility and the choices we have to make between idealism and our capacity to endure suffering; limits that both Winston and Julia reach over the course of the story.

“They’re out of their mind. That’s the whole point of torture – to break the mind,” says Ekaragha – whose films include Danny and the Human Zoo, as well as directing episodes of The End of the F***ing World and Fellow Travellers. “I think you can only truly betray someone when you’re in your right mind. So I bear no grudge towards Winston, Julia or anyone that has done something like that, and surely afterwards when their mind is corrected they’ll be living with guilt. How could I do this? That’s how you could do it. Someone broke you.”

White adds: “It’s about how you can break down the mind and spirit and body. Winston in that moment can’t bear anything else and his mind is completely broken. And actually the form of the adaptation at that exact moment completely fragments, and it becomes a completely different form of storytelling. There is literally an out of body experience because Winston at that point has been broken.”

Orwell himself was no stranger to enduring pain in the name of his ideals, having been shot in the neck and nearly killed fighting against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war, and later famously racing to finish writing 1984 while suffering the agonising effects of tuberculosis.

However, the human body is not solely a site of pain. Physical pleasures play an important role in Orwell’s novel, not least because they are often denied – whether it’s the taste of chocolate or coffee, or the act of sex. Indeed, sex is a key act of rebellion in 1984 – the subject of risky encounters and some insightful conversations between the characters. The Party promotes abstinence through the Junior Anti-Sex League, while Winston and Julia’s defiance is sparked by their sexual chemistry and secret hook-ups. The audio production does not shy away from portraying the novel’s explicit moments.

White laughs when asked about the sex that is so central to 1984: “That’s the first sex scene I’ve ever written. I write a lot for the stage and maybe I’m too coy or, you know, British or something to put actors through it. But everyone in the booth during these recordings was like: ‘This is sexy, this is hot.’”

“It was so romantic, it was passionate,” adds Ekaragha. “It’s such a big part of life and yet we’re still really taboo about it. I love romance. So it was really important for me that that felt real.”

This focus highlights how the act of getting inside someone else’s head can sometimes be an act of love and support rather than coercion. “The love story was key to the adaptation – that intimacy of letting somebody into your head,” says White. “That feeling like you’ve made a connection in a world where that’s so dangerous. Where love itself is dangerous – the very fact you’ve met someone means that you are in more danger than you ever were before because you suddenly have something to lose.”

While the voices of Garfield and Erivo convey Winston and Julia’s love and lust, the dramatisation deploys other clever audio techniques to convey the hold they have over each other. In a stunningly executed narrative device, Julia’s voice often literally gets inside Winston’s head. This storytelling conceit expands on the way that Party official O’Brien, played by Andrew Scott, invades Winston’s thoughts in Orwell’s book.

Related: At war with ourselves: 1984 and the struggle against our digital demons

In the audio production, O’Brien’s voice oozes both menace and manic energy. “Andrew Scott is such a maestro of body and voice that he made that character at points enjoyable for us,” says White.

“It was important to capture the thought processes of characters in that world, but also to have other voices come into their heads. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but if we are going to a place where O’Brien suddenly becomes the controlling voice, we’ve got to really love and really care about Winston’s voice before that.

“It’s also about who [Winston] lets in. He lets Julia into his head – her voice is in his head. O’Brien also gets to live in his head,” notes White. “Who do you let in and who fights their way into your head? You get to do that so intimately in audio. That’s what’s really exciting: you get to go into people’s heads physically if they’re listening with headphones. You literally are in people’s heads telling a story.”

Anita Sethi is the author of I Belong Here: a Journey Along the Backbone of Britain

Audible’s new dramatisation of George Orwell’s classic tale stars Andrew Garfield, Cynthia Erivo, Andrew Scott and Tom Hardy, with an original score by Matthew Bellamy and Ilan Eshkeri. Listen now. Subscription required. See audible.co.uk for terms.

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