For the review of the play Orwell in America at 59E59, click here.
The idea of an adaptation for theater of George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days of 1934, is appealing but this production does not rise alive from Orwell’s pages as a true dramatization.
On a simple stepped stage, and with static staging, the actors speak Orwell’s words sometimes facing the audience, sometimes engaging with one another but either way the feeling is that of attending a spliced and incomplete reading of the novel. The assignment of the actors to their multiple parts seems abrupt and arbitrary and undercuts identification and sympathy with the characters.
Burmese Days, which grew out of Orwell’s personal experiences as a member of the British military police in Burma, takes us into the world of British officers in a colonial outpost of the British Empire and the natives with whom they interacted. No surprise that this was not to the benefit of the natives, in spite of stabs at education and medical assistance, but the British also could be ground down by the exotic isolation of the postings and the grueling human conflicts embedded in exploitative relationships.
In the play, one British officer is at odds with his colleagues because he doesn’t share their racist attitudes and gross condesension towards the native Burmese. He in fact enjoys a friendship based on respect with a Burmese medical doctor, and keeps a Burmese woman as his mistress. But under pressure from the others in the officers club, and with a minimum of soul searching, he betrays the doctor and, falling in love with a single British woman who arrives at the outpost, he readily abandons the native mistress. A man of decent instincts but moral weakness, he seizes an inevitable and, by then one feels, deserved fate.
The sound effects are the best thing in the play and the most fun: sounds such as birds in flight, and the encroaching jungle wildlife, are evoked with simple objects in full view of the audience as in some eastern theater traditions –- a pink umbrella swishes closed when a rare bird with stunning plumage is shot for sport, a powerful and telling moment.
George Orwell’s Burmese Days plays at 59E59 Theater B, in mid-town Manhattan through December 4.