Bernard Cuffling as George Bowling in Leslie Mildiner’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, at Kay Meek Studio Theatre Nov. 16-25. (photo by Stephen Courtenay)
Award-winning actor Bernard Cuffling portrays George Bowling in Leslie Mildiner’s award-winning adaptation of George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air. Presented by Kay Meek Studio Theatre and One-O-One Productions, the one-man stage play opens Nov. 16.
First published in 1939, Orwell’s novel centres on 45-year-old insurance salesman George Bowling, “who makes an escape from ‘Hilda and the kids’ in London for a few days following a win at the races,” explains the promotional material. “George visits his boyhood village in an attempt to recapture childhood innocence, but finds it changed beyond recognition by the effects of modern life. His feelings of loss are intensified by the threat of war looming on the horizon.”
“Prose is the most intimate of writing – nothing separates the writer from the reader. Plus, there are no physical limitations to the setting, time, etc.,” Mildiner, a member of the Jewish community, told the Independent about the challenges of taking a novel and turning it into play. “Theatre is both a physical medium and collaboration. Physically, the storytelling is constrained by the limits of the performance space, restrictions of real time and the physical limitations of the actor/s in that space. So, the challenge is to take the unbridled narrative possibilities of prose and contain them on stage. Specifically, a stage play can only cover so much of the story unraveling over the length of a novel, so large sections of the narrative have to be edited or tossed aside. But, thankfully, whatever the medium, all stories have a beginning, middle, end – or three acts. What’s lost [are] certain subtleties and nuances of the story. What’s gained: the director (me!), actor and designers get to bring the story to life whatever way we choose.”
As a teenager, living in Britain, Mildiner published his first novel; he published his second novel when he was 22. In those years, according to his bio, he “was immersed in the British fringe theatre/alternative comedy scene as a writer and performer. On arriving in Vancouver in the early ’80s, he was drawn to the scene here when he was engaged as a comedy performer at Expo 86.” His scripts have been produced by Vancouver companies like Arts Club, Touchstone and the Firehall Arts Centre, and across Canada. He has also written for TV animation shows, including Kid vs. Kat and Class of the Titans.
So, what interested him in adapting a novel and, in particular, Coming Up for Air?
“The main character George Bowling’s struggle to do ‘the right thing,’” said Mildiner. “He’s a bit of an ass – and you probably wouldn’t want to meet him in real life – but he has a solid moral core and struggles against his need to be ‘the messenger,’ the canary in the coal mine. I found this fascinating. Also, it makes him a modern-type anti-hero. Also, because he is flawed, the audience get to see themselves reflected in him when he is forced to make choices.”
The anxieties and tensions described in Coming Up for Air are still relevant, almost 80 years after its publication.
“Coming Up for Air was published in 1939, a couple of years after Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War, where he witnessed the hope of people’s revolution turn into totalitarianism, with the threat of Hitler and Germany looming,” explained Mildiner. “In 2017, post-9/11, we live in an increasing paranoid world where even in the West, individual rights (seem) to be eroding. Plus, we have an unstable, narcissistic leader of the Free World, daily making attacks against minorities and those with no power, blaming ‘the Other’ for everything that’s wrong. Also, with the [President Donald] Trump insistence that everything in opposition is ‘fake news,’ including his own lies, Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ has been brought to life.”
That said, added Mildiner, “Despite Trump, international terrorism, racism, corporate mentality and consumerism, I don’t think Orwell predicted the rise of modern humanism – our real desires and efforts to look after each other. For example, the conservation movement, eco-awareness, fight for indigenous rights, children’s rights, [the] LGBT movement.”
But Orwell did foresee many aspects of the future accurately.
“In seemingly incidental ways,” said Mildiner, “Coming Up for Air is prophetic: the main character encounters urbanization (his small village is now a large suburb), box stores – he complains about new chain stores and the advent of fast food joints. ‘Everything is streamlined and sleek – comfort doesn’t matter,’ he complains at one point. People from that era would be appalled at the idea of an eatery posting signs telling you [that] you can only stay for a set period of time!”
Coming Up for Air runs at Kay Meek Studio Theatre in West Vancouver Nov. 16-25. Tickets ($29-$45) can be purchased at kaymeek.com/coming-up-for-air.