Year of the Rat

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

18/04/2009 - 16/05/2009

Production Details

"….I’d have given it all up, all the success, all the novels, all the praise, just to have been good with girls." George Orwell – Year of the Rat 

The clock strikes 13. The year is 1948 – Year of the Rat. George Orwell taps away at his typewriter putting the finishing touches to his final masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four.

So begins this captivating play by Roy Smiles set on the isolated Scottish island of Jura. Suffering from ill health, and with literary-circle bombshell Sonia Brownell for company, Orwell is desperately hoping for a last chance at happiness.

Unannounced his childhood friend and notorious lecher Cyril Connolly turns up. With George’s 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 Nineteen Eighty-Four before death comes knocking?

Merging fact, fiction and fantasy this witty play offers many delights – including the appearance of three animals, drawn from Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Writer extraordinaire, and often referred to as the social conscience of his generation, George Orwell still commands huge readership not only for Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia but also for his essays, articles and journalism.  His all too short life ended when he was only 46.  

Roy Smiles offers us a fascinating glimpse of this iconic author’s life 2 years before he died.

Directed by Jane Waddell the talented cast includes Jessica Robinson, Simon Vincent, Jason Ward Kennedy and Jason Whyte as George Orwell.  

SEASON: 18 April – 16 May
Performance times:
Tuesday – Saturday 7:30pm, Sunday 4.30pm
Tickets: $18 – $35
Bookings: Circa 801 7992 or
$20 Specials: Preview Friday 17 April 7.30pm, Sunday 19 April 4.30.
After-show Q & A Tuesday 21 April
Credit Crunch cheer-ups:  Complimentary Coffee & Cake with the Cast after the show every Thursday. 

World premiere Court Theatre, Christchurch 10 November, 2007
First presented in the UK at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre 7 March 2008. 



George Orwell Jason Whyte
Sonia Brownell Jessica Robinson
Cyril Connolly Jason Ward Kennedy
Horse, Pig, Rat Simon Vincent

Set Design John Hodgkins
Lighting Design Ulli Briese
Costume Design Gillie Coxill

Stage Manager /Technical Operation Isaac Heron
Publicity Colleen McColl
Graphic Design Rose Miller, Toolbox
Set Construction John Hodgkins
Set Finishing Eileen McCann
Photography Stephen A'Court
House Manager Suzanne Blackburn
Box Office Linda Wilson


1hr 45 mins, incl. interval

The charming rat

Review by Lynn Freeman 22nd Apr 2009

It’s impossible to imagine Animal Farm or Nineteen Eight-Four being written by a man with a sunny disposition.  

George Orwell was however more tortured than I knew, physically and emotionally. Of course this is a play not an autobiography, and it imagines Orwell’s closest companions to be his fictionalised characters from Animal Farm. But you get a sense of truth from Roy Smiles’ script and that’s enhanced by the performance of Orwell by Jason Whyte in this production.

The play is set on the remote Island of Jura in Scotland, where Orwell is feverishly finishing Nineteen Eighty-Four while being wracked by coughing fits and loneliness – something he says he’s rather fond of but by now he’s desperate for company, and for love.

He’s invited his editor Sonia Brownell (the perfectly cast Jessica Robinson) to stay. But while he can find all the right words for his novels, he struggles to express his love for her.

Orwell admits that he’s based Julia in this new novel on Sonia, but while he can control what she does and feels on the page, he can’t in real life. The socialite just wants a bit of fun in the sack, not a life commitment from the writer, who is as ugly as she is gorgeous. Potentially ruining Orwell’s best laid plans is friend and editor Cyril Connolly (played with gusto by Jason Ward Kennedy) whose motives seem dodgy at best until we get to know this loud, vulgar man rather better through the play.

And visiting Orwell during his darker moments are three of his Animal Farm creations, the argumentative Stalin the Pig, who helps us understand Orwell’s deep-seated loathing of fascism, the charming Rat and the ever faithful Boxer the Horse. Simon Vincent plays them all brilliantly and his portrayal of Boxer is particularly memorable and moving.

The work at 1 hour 45 minutes still feels a little long, notably the first half, despite the clever writing, absorbing premise and terrific performances.

Overall though, this is an excellent and thoughtful play directed by Jane Waddell with great understanding of the text and Orwell himself. John Hodgkins’ set, painted by the excellent Eileen McCann, is wonderfully evocative of the time and place, complemented by Ulli Briese’s warm lighting design.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Verve, humour, allure and superb acting

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 20th Apr 2009

Graham Greene found George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four ‘very good except the sex part. That’s ham.’ Year of the Rat, Roy Smiles’s comic fantasy about George Orwell, shows us, at times movingly, why Greene’s assessment was right.

The play is set in 1948 in a dour little cottage (a good set by John Hodgkins) on the remote island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides, the last place someone suffering from tuberculosis should visit one would have thought, but Orwell went there for peace and quiet, to escape ‘Stalin’s goons’ and to complete Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Smiles then rewrites history by having Orwell’s sanctuary invaded by two people, neither of whom ever visited Jura. Anachronistically described as a ‘literary groupie’, Sonia Brownell, a beautiful editorial assistant with whom the sexually inhibited Orwell is hopelessly in love, arrives from London.

So too does his old Etonian school friend, famous editor, and womanizer Cyril Connelly who is intent on seducing Sonia with a gross full frontal approach in order to save Orwell from heartbreak – or so he says. 

However, there are some other well-known visitors who haunt Orwell’s haven: they are

Boxer, Napoleon the pig, and Rat from Room 101 who represent his relationship with the working class, political tyranny, and fear of loneliness. These scenes border on the twee but are saved by the verve and wry humour with which Simon Vincent plays them all.

The first act is dominated by Connolly who drops clever aphorisms, jokes, puns, and witticisms as amusingly, fluently, and irritatingly as Oscar Wilde must have been in full flow. His pronouncement that ‘We are all serving a life-sentence in the dungeon of self’ is made all too clear in the play, particularly as he is played on a single bombastic note throughout by Jason Ward Kennedy.

Jessica Robinson plays Sonia with warmth and sexual allure, capturing an upper middle-class Englishness that rings absolutely true, while Jason Whyte as Orwell suggests the intellectual, emotional and physical qualities of a man tortured by his fatal illness, his sexual inexperience, and his yearning for Sonia about whom he says he has no pride where she is concerned. His superb performance exposes the essential brittleness of the play.
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A dance of death or dance for love?

Review by John Smythe 19th Apr 2009

Two things may affect your response to this play: the degree to which you know George Orwell’s best-known works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four; and whether you believe the people who visit George on the Island of Jura (in the Inner Hebrides) in 1948 are really there or imagined by him.

There is no doubt that the Horse who comes to the cottage window (Boxer: Animal Farm‘s loyal worker, who believed in the revolution only to be betrayed by the Party), the Pig (Napoleon, the Stalin figure who becomes the dictator) and the Rat (of which more in a moment) are present only in Orwell’s mind.

This Jane Waddell-directed Circa production demands we decide for ourselves what is ‘real’ and what is fantasised.

It starts with Orwell (Jason Whyte) two-finger typing at a table in his remote wood-lined cottage (designed by John Hodgkins, lit by Ulli Briese). From upstairs, in a dressing gown, the gorgeous Sonia Brownell (Jessica Robinson) appears. It soon emerges George is completing the second draft of his new book (Nineteen Eighty Four) which is "pretty bleak" although it does include a beautiful woman called Julia who, he confesses, is based on Sonia.

For those in the know, Julia is Winston Smith’s co-worker in the Ministry of Truth.  He is initially repulsed by her enthusiastic participation in the ‘Two Minutes Hate’ directed at a Party co-founder who now claims the Revolution was betrayed, and Winston has fantasies about raping then murdering her. But when she slips him a secret "I love you" note, they become thought and sex criminals together, until … But we’ll get to that.

Sonia is the editorial assistant of Cyril Connolly, who publishes a literary magazine (Horizon), and she is lusted after by all the male writers in London. It seems her deigning to join George in his remote hide-away is his reward for not being as crass as the others. But he does love her and he wants to make love … "Just a bit of fun," is her stipulation (she is still emotionally raw after a breakup with her French phenomenological philosopher lover Maurice Merleau-Ponty: the only intellectual she knew who could dance).

This relationship, between the painfully shy, romantically inept and now consumptively ill George and the obviously experienced Sonia – who is clearly neither the lesbian nor slut so many men rationalise her to be – is played out by Whyte and Robinson with great sensitivity, demanding our empathy from all perspectives.

Boxer, brought to the window with statuesque dignity by Simon Vincent, allows Orwell to say more about his book – yes, it’s another one about a totalitarian state – before Cyril himself appears, claiming to just be passing. He’s there to take Sonia back: "The office needs her." His jealousy at the prospect of George succeeding with her only adds to the envy he feels at George’s literary success.

Given there is no record of Bronwell or Connolly ever visiting Orwell in his remote retreat, we are either dealing with artistic licence or imagined events. For me it is more intriguing that they are both ‘what ifs’ in Orwell’s mind, but based on his very real knowledge of them.

Connolly is the antithesis of sensitive: a boorish misogynist obsessed with who is taking sexual advantage of whom, or what. Yet (he claims) his ‘score’ with women is phenomenal. His only saving grace is that he is reasonably aphoristic in expressing his warped set of so-called values, fancying himself as a latter-day Samuel Johnson perhaps. And the sad loneliness beneath his bluff does come through.

Jason Ward Kennedy’s rendition of this role could perhaps be more modulated, to better explore Cyril’s underlying vulnerability-cum-humanity. While his relentless ways may be justified if we see him as filtered through Orwell’s imagination, it may also be argued that Orwell is an astute-enough observer of humanity to imagine Cyril as more than he seems to be here. I just feel that if I was provoked into laughing more at his gross humour in spite of myself, the play would be more interestingly challenging and confronting. 

Simon Vincent’s eerily sure-of-himself Stalinesque Pig (Napoleon) offers little to laugh at, of course, as he gives Orwell the opportunity to express his own anger at the betrayal of sincere socialists by his – Stalin’s – totalitarian brand of communism.

But the play’s primary purpose, as I see it, is not so much to relitigate the political issues as to look for authentic love amid the arid emotional landscape. More empathy-compelling drama arises when Sonia makes it clear she will not sleep with George again. You don’t have to know anything about the books to identify with that, from both points of view. And if you do …

This is where the Rat comes in. Well he has actually arrived just before interval, dressed in a kilt and full Scottish regalia plus tell-tale tail, completing the Simon Vincent hat-trick of fascinatingly imagined quadrupeds. He is looking for Room 101.

Thus placed, the interval allows us to ask around and/or remind ourselves about Room 101. In Nineteen Eighty Four this is where each prisoner is confronted with their greatest fear, whatever that may be. And Winston’s greatest fear is rats, not that the play reminds us of that. Nor does it prompt our recollection that he was threatened with two caged rats which could, at the interrogator’s whim, be released into the embedded fencing mask that he could be made to wear, wherein they would eat his face off. This appalling prospect is Winston’s tipping point. Believing Julia has already betrayed him in her interrogation, he begs O’Brien (the interrogator) to make her wear it instead of him. 

But Rat in the play is not scary. Or is he? "Women are appalled by George," someone observes. "And George is fascinated by rats." Although this Rat understands that Orwell needs to learn about love – "I’d have given it all up, all the success, all the novels, all the praise, just to have been good with girls," George has told Cyril – he (the Rat) goes on to brag that his only objective in life is to eat and copulate. "Just like Cyril," quips George.

Consider the title once more: The Year of the Rat. His are the values that prevail.

At the end of Nineteen Eighty Four Winston replaces his love for Julia with an all-consuming love for Big Brother. The Year of the Rat ends with George Orwell being taught to dance by the Rat: Rat leads; Orwell follows. Is this Orwell’s capitulation or a positive attempt to redeem himself? In accepting the embrace of the Rat is he confronting his fear of love? Is this a dance of death or a dance for love?

The answer may lie in what we discover right at the end. Just before she returns to London, Sonia rejects George’s proposal of marriage. But a curtain-call slide tells us she did marry him a matter of months before he died of consumption. How and why that breakthrough occurred is left for us to wonder at.   
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