Isolated on a Scottish island in 1948 George Orwell is attempting to finish his last masterpiece – Nineteen Eighty Four – before ill health forces him off the island. Holed up with a shotgun and
literary circle bombshell Sonia Brownell for company he’s desperately hoping for a last chance at happiness.
But George is no womaniser and is sure to make a hash of things particularly after his childhood friend and notorious letch Cyril Connolly turns up. With his only ally being Boxer, the cart-horse
from Animal Farm, will he seduce Sonia or will Cyril scupper his plans? Can he survive his friends, both real and imaginary, and finish his masterpiece before death comes knocking?
Having read 1984 and Animal Farm many years ago, I was fascinated to learn more about the man behind the modern classics in Roy Smiles’ play Year of the Rat. Set on the remote Island of Jura (more well known in our house for its Whisky), the play explores a fictitious encounter between George Orwell who, despite his ill health, is there to finish off his last novel 1984, Sonia Brownell (later to become his wife) and Cyril Connelly, his oldest friend, who is there to seduce Sonia and therefore save George’s heart from being broken.
The scene opens, as a clock chimes thirteen (in homage to 1984), on the main room of the rented cottage, suitably bare, with wooden internal doors leading off to the stairs and the kitchen. It would have been nice to see some sign that the cottage was inhabited – perhaps a coat or boots by the door? When revealed, the kitchen looked very bright, cosy and clean, a far cry from the “place where cockroaches go to die” described by Cyril. It all felt very solid though and believably rustic. Costumes were appropriate and of the period but I thought that Pig wasn’t nearly “piggy” enough – I couldn’t really see his trotter feet from where I was sitting and his tail wasn’t immediately obvious – perhaps a snout or trotters for hands could have conveyed this more quickly?
I was surprised to learn that George was not a confident, assured man, and Jim Markey conveyed the shabby, physically frail and sexually insecure yet politically passionate and gifted novelist admirably. Wracked by the violent coughing typical of the TB slowly consuming his body, and inexpertly allowing himself to be seduced by Sonia, we also saw a much stronger character emerge when challenging Pig about his socialist ideologies. This was the George Orwell we know from his books (Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War and actually lived his beliefs unlike many of his contemporaries) and at odds with the more naive Eric Blair (Orwell’s real name).
Cyril, played by Godfrey Marriott, was rumbustuous, larger than life and as sexually confident as Orwell was insecure. From his first entrance, drenched and trying in vain to light a very soggy cigarette, he had all the best one-liners and lifted the mood, while revealing a far more loyal and serious side. I totally felt that he and George were comfortable together in the way that old sparring partners are, while enjoying their disagreements.
Hannah Leonard as the sexy and intelligent Sonia, later to become George’s wife and later still his literary defender, was in turn seductive and self-possessed, unfazed by the unorthodox seduction technique employed by Cyril and seemingly intrigued by the ineptness of George. I did wonder if her cut-glass accent hampered some of her spontaneity, but it was a warm and believable performance.
Last we come to Boxer, Pig and Rat, all played by Andy Kirtley. These imaginary friends, who only appear to George, represent his private fears – loneliness, oppression and death. Boxer the horse and Napoleon the pig from Animal Farm are were the first two to appear – although hidden behind a full face mask, we still understood Boxe’s character, simple and trusting. Pig by contrast was dominant and arrogant, (he is assumed to represent Stalin) and the subsequent exchange between him and George was excellent – very powerful and one of the few moments in the play where the pace picked up. Lastly we met Rat, a very suave rat from Room 101, splendidly attired in kilt and ears. This was a strong performance, with real stage presence and the relationship between him and George appeared genuine.
The director, David Crook, drew strong performances from his actors and built some really believable relationships between them. Perhaps the pace was a little even (apart from the aforementioned scene with Pig) and I never felt any real danger that George was going to do anything silly with the shotgun, but the production kept my interest from start to finish.
Year of the Rat was an interesting concept and the production enjoyed excellent performances and an attractive presentation. Thank you Company of Players for another enjoyable and high quality production!