Mistress, Mother, Executor, Nurse: Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion Theatre

 

In October 1949, as the year drew to a darkened close, George Orwell, aged 46 and with a cadaverous body shrivelled by TB, proposed within the confines of his bare hospital room to Sonia Brownell, a beautiful literary editor sixteen years his junior. She accepted and they married the following month. On 21 January 1950 Orwell died. This fascinating, relatively unknown episode is the subject of Mrs Orwell, a new play by Tony Cox that premiered at the Old Red Lion theatre earlier this month.
What makes Mrs Orwell so engaging is that Orwell’s and Sonia’s motivations for marrying one another were varied:
Orwell: What I’m really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man. I mean, you’d get royalties coming in and so forth and you might even find it interesting to edit my unpublished stuff.  Of course there’s no knowing how long I’ll live. I mean, I’ve been supposed to die several times, but I always lived on just to spite them. Ideally, I’d like to live another ten years because I think I have another three worthwhile books in me. Oh, Sonia, you are my only hope.
Sonia: So what you want, in a nutshell, George, is a mistress, housekeeper, nurse, literary executor and mother for Richard?
Orwell: Yes.

Sonia, on the other hand, shows an interest in the huge amount she will inherit from Orwell, wants to avoid a marriage to someone she loves as this will only bring “unhappiness”, and states that by marrying him this will aid Orwell’s recovery. It is this mixture of motivations and the ambiguities as to the nature of the relationship between George and Sonia that is the meat of the play; particularly interesting in this latter respect is the sexual tension between them, despite their relationship being, seemingly, anything but romantic: for example, Sonia is aroused when Orwell explains that he would tie her naked to a stake, shoot her full of arrows and then ravish her. The violence of this comment is perhaps an overcompensation for Orwell’s stated impotence.

Cox clearly has done his research about the characters, each recounting historically documented episodes of their lives. The attention to historical detail is impressive, lending veracity and weight to the play; for example, Orwell pours the tea from his cup into the saucer and drinks with a loud sucking noise, which Orwell was known to have done; and Orwell’s requirement that Sonia must learn to make dumplings if she was to be his wife is also included. Cox also does not favour a particular version of events. According to Michael Shelden, Sonia accepted Orwell’s proposal with a view to becoming rich. On the other hand, Sonia told her biographer, Hilary Spurling, that Orwell wrote to her to say that he believed marrying her would prolong his life. “You see,” she told Spurling, “I had no choice”. Cox conveys both Shelden’s and Spurling’s version of events, not preferring either view. This ambiguity provides the actors with a certain amount of freedom as to how to play Sonia – a ministering angel or a controlling gold-digger. In Jimmy Walters’s production, Sonia is portrayed in a fairly sympathetic light, with her bursting into tears at the end of the play following Orwell’s death – something that is not included in the script. This is probably the more historically accurate version. In her biography, Spurling quotes Sonia’s friend Natasha Spender recounting that when Orwell died “it was cataclysmic. She had persuaded herself she loved him intellectually, for his writing, but she found she really loved him”.

It is a shame, however, that Cox does not portray more of Sonia’s character. The Sonia of Mrs Orwell is presented as efficient, somewhat controlling and glamorous. But, as Spurling recounts, the Sonia of real life had other facets. Sonia was known to have a sharp tongue. This was vividly demonstrated when she announced within earshot of a nun at her Catholic convent school: “I’m so bored I wish I’d been birth controlled so as not to exist.”  She was also insecure, having endured a troubled upbringing; Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sonia’s married lover who eventually tired of her demands that he leave his wife, was reportedly “transfixed … by the sorrow underlying her surface gaiety”.

The Old Red Lion Theatre is intimate and there is no room for actors to hide. Peter Hamilton Dyer, who plays Orwell (and looks remarkably like him), spectacularly rose to the occasion. He hauntingly captured the physical agony of TB and had an impressive grasp of the contemporary accent. Cressida Bonas, who plays Sonia, was – at times – visibly nervous (particularly during the sexier scenes), coming across as a little tense and somewhat mannered; however, once she relaxed, she was convincing, and she clearly has the potential to be a fabulous actor. Edmund Digby-Jones, who played Lucien Freud, did so with great charisma and energy.  There are also strong performances from Rosie Ede as the nurse and Robert Stocks as Fred Warburg, Orwell’s publisher (whose role is somewhat limited to providing context and commentary).

Mrs Orwell is a strong play, providing an insight into the end of George Orwell’s life, as well as the mix of motivations that can be at play in intimate relationships. Go and see it before the run ends on 26th August.

Mrs Orwell continues at the Old Red Lion Theatre until August 26. Tickets are £18 (£16 concessions).

Emily Bueno

About Emily Bueno

Emily Bueno has an M.Phil in literature from Trinity College, Dublin. She has written for the Telegraph Culture section and the TLS. She is a trainee solicitor and lives in London.

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