Fun fact to remember for future pub quizzes: George Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair. This is just one of the things to be learnt about the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion. The play, directed by Jimmy Walters, charts the final months of Orwell’s life following the publication of 1984. Admitted to University College Hospital suffering from tuberculosis, a fragile George proposes to young, glamorous magazine editor Sonia Brownell, who goes on to become the second Mrs Orwell. Cox examines their relationship and the motivations of each party in this fascinating and moving new play, which also touches on Orwell’s politics, his guilt over the death of his first wife Eileen, and the universal need to be remembered after we’re gone.
Despite its title, the play is just as much the story of Mr Orwell as that of his wife, and Peter Hamilton Dyer absolutely commands the stage for almost the entirety of the evening. A hunched, pathetic figure in clothes that are far too big for him, racked by ill health and desperately lonely and afraid, it’s tragically clear that his wits are still as sharp as ever, and he longs to believe he has at least three more novels in him. George loves Sonia without hope or agenda, knowing full well her heart belongs to the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and his simple joy in just being around her is devastatingly well played by Hamilton Dyer.
As his new wife, Cressida Bonas is equally compelling. Clipped, efficient and often impatient, she also demonstrates an obvious affection for George that makes it difficult to work out Sonia’s true motivation. While she certainly seems swayed by the suggestion that she could benefit financially from the marriage, her grief when she learns of his death and her desire to honour his final wishes appear genuine and heartfelt. She’s not a particularly likeable character in the story – all our sympathy is spent on the vulnerable figure of Orwell himself – but at the same time, she’s not a villain of the piece either, and we find ourselves admiring her sacrifice whilst still questioning her motives.
A brilliant cast is completed by Rosie Ede as Orwell’s no-nonsense nurse, Robert Stocks as his fiercely loyal publisher Fred Warburg, and Edmund Digby Jones in a particularly intriguing performance as Lucian Freud. His scenes with Bonas are marked by a simmering sexual tension, while with her husband he’s relaxed and humorously frank about his own and others’ shortcomings. (In fact the play in general is surprisingly funny, considering it’s a story about a dying man.)
The majority of the action takes place in George’s hospital room, though some conversations are held in the corridor behind, amplified for our benefit and with the actors visible through the bedroom windows. This presents a slight confusion, because it isn’t made clear if these discussions can also be heard inside the room – perhaps this isn’t hugely significant given that George is always fully aware of Sonia’s romantic indifference to him, but it’s a minor frustration in an otherwise excellent production.
Cox delights in name-dropping famous writers and artists throughout as a way of reminding us that the play’s based on true events: Picasso, Dalí, Thomas Mann, Norman Mailer all get a mention. Even so, you don’t need to know much – or anything at all, really – about Orwell or his work to enjoy this very human story of love, fear and hope. Beautifully performed with warmth and humour, Mrs Orwell is a fascinating and entertaining insight into the life and death of a legend.
Mrs Orwell is at the Old Red Lion until 26th August.