George Orwell’s proposal to Sonia Brownell was nothing if not novel.
Mrs Orwell, a new play by Tony Cox, which has just opened at London’s Old Red Lion Theatre, concentrates on the very brief marriage between one of England’s literary giants and a beautiful young woman that was to be his muse and last love.
But the title is a misnomer.
It isn’t this rather insipid interpretation of the second Mrs Eric Blair that holds our interest but that of the furious, desperate, lonely Orwell.
We see him laying in a hospital bed and dying of tuberculosis but still raging at the diktats of a post-war Labour government, protecting his latest masterpiece from cowardly publishers, and yearning for his beloved Scottish island home in Jura and a cuddle from his young son, Robert.
I’m not sure if Cox, director Jimmy Walters or the limited acting skills of Cressida Bonas are to blame but I think Mrs Orwell would likely have sued over this portrayal if she were still alive. They’ve made her so dull.
She is seen as a money-grabbing cold fish who can’t pass a comment without having a look of someone just getting the whiff of something unpleasant.
She appears thoroughly unlikeable, remote, unemotional and selfish, and dressed like a badly off, dowdy, librarian who buys her eminently practical days clothes from downmarket Woolworths.
In fact the real Sonia lived a wild and colourful life, the inspiration and mistress of two eminent painters, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, and the lover of Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler and French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
She later endorsed her bohemian credentials by marrying the noted homosexual Michael Pitt-Rivers, who was part of the Montagu sex scandal, and was feted by artists like Picasso, writers, socialites and thinkers on both sides of the English Channel.
She was also, it has been suggested, the model for Julia, the heroine of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the “girl from the fiction department” who brings love and warmth to the middle-aged hero, Winston Smith.
And she dedicated her life to protecting Orwell’s memory and work.
So it’s baffling why the playwright seems to have taken such a dislike to his subject, creating a woman entirely devoid of warmth and tenderness.
Thankfully Peter Hamilton Dyers gives a thoroughly classy performance as George Orwell. Our first glimpse of the Animal Farm author is of him wheezing and spluttering in a hospital bed and tended to by a jolly and efficient nurse (Rosie Ede).
He may be dying of TB but that can’t get in the way of business. His publisher and friend Fred Warburg (Robert Stocks) drops by to discuss the publication in America of his latest and controversial blockbuster, Nineteen Eighty Four, and the writer is in a pugnacious mood.
They don’t call him “gloomy George” for nothing (he’s even built his home on a remote island to be out of range of a nuclear attack).
But Orwell has everything to live for. There is a film deal in the offing and he has plans for at least another three books.
Sonia, who works for one of George’s oldest friends, also sweeps in, po-faced and quite hostile. It’s never fully explained why she makes the effort to visit if she doesn’t particularly like the man although she does seem to be reluctantly acting as his secretary.
But Orwell is besotted. He’s a widower and lonely and, despite having some odd ideas about women and sex inherited from his mother, he wants to give marriage another crack in the hope that it will extend his life.
“I don’t love you, you know,” she tells him.
And so begins the final, short, chapter of his life which is entirely spent in a hospital room at University College Hospital, London.
Dyers gives a powerful and revelatory performance as the socialist author, giving us insights into one of Britain’s greatest writers of the twentieth century.
In one shocking scene the wealthy Orwell reveals how his parsimony killed his first wife because he refused to pay for expensive cancer treatment.
Lucien Freud occasionally comes by to sketch him, which gives Edmund Digby Jones a support role to savour. Stocks, too, delivers a strong and passionate performance as Orwell’s greatest ally.
It’s not often I get the chance to sit down and read the entire play book of a production but here I did and my eyes were drawn to one scene where Tony Cox has Sonia stripping off and indulging in a bit of foot fantasy sex with her new husband.
Now, if that had been included the play – instead of Bonas giving a cursory massage of a sock-covered foot – it may have livened up her disappointing and one-note performance.
Proud Haddock’s production of Mrs Orwell runs at The Old Red Lion Theatre until August 26.
Peter Hamilton Dyer gives a powerful performance, breathing life into the final chapter of George Orwell’s last days, in Tony Cox’s engrossing drama, Mrs Orwell.