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Cressida Bonas talks taking on Sonia Brownell, the girl from the fiction department

PUBLISHED: 16:00 26 July 2017

Cressida Bonas stars in Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Cressida Bonas stars in Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion Theatre

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Cressida Bonas stars as Sonia Brownell in Mrs Orwell, the story of George Orwell’s second and last marriage, at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre in August

Cressida Bonas and Edmund Digby Jones at Mrs Orwell script reading. Picture: Al Overdrive Cressida Bonas and Edmund Digby Jones at Mrs Orwell script reading. Picture: Al Overdrive

“She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated,” writes George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead.”

Orwell’s depiction of Julia in the dystopian classic has often been attached to a real woman. There are varying accounts of Sonia Brownell, who married the writer shortly before his death in 1949. Being beautiful and younger than him, she was predictably labelled a golddigger, but many of his close friends disagreed.

Proud Haddock theatre company’s Mrs Orwell, which opens at the Old Red Lion Theatre on August 1, explores this private aspect of one of the most famous icons of the last century.

“She was very layered and definitely had failings, but I believe her motives were of good intention and the script takes this choice also,” says actor Cressida Bonas who plays the part of Sonia.

“Sonia was a vibrant and ambitious assistant editor at Horizon magazine who was friends with George Orwell and later became his second wife. The play takes a look at the last chapter of Orwell’s life and the role Sonia plays at this time.”

Lying in University College Hospital and afflicted with tuberculosis, Orwell believes he has at least three novels left in him so he proposes to his friend Sonia in an attempt to keep up his morale.

“We wanted to make her as human and real as possible, finding those good and bad things that make up a three dimensional character. There have been various Orwell biographies that have attacked her motives, but ‘The Girl from the Fiction Department’ by Hillary Spurling who defends Sonia has been of huge help.”

Tony Cox’s script and Bonas herself take a similar view of Sonia: that she helped Orwell through some very difficult and painful months, offering support and lifting his spirits.

“She was a modern girl at a time when working women were not easily accepted, where marriage and babies seemed like the most appropriate option, but Sonia rebelled against convention. They had an intellectual friendship where they could share their love of literature and poetry.”

Bonas’s stage career started with her first role at school, as Leisl in The Sound of Music. She “loved every second of it” and has since acted in Gatsby and An Evening with Lucian Freud, both at the Leicester Square Theatre, in Doctor Thorne on ITV, horror film The Bye Bye Man and soon-to-be released Tulip Fever, screen written by Tom Stoppard from Deborah Moggach’s novel.

When she first read the script for Mrs Orwell, she immediately loved the writing and the characters “jumped off the page”. She’s excited by the prospect of starring in the world premiere of a new script.

“Being the first to take on a role is very exciting and daunting in a way because there are no previous interpretations to be influenced by,” she says.

“I approached this character by doing a lot of research. I have loved this process as I’ve learnt so much about this fascinating character as well as the complexities of George Orwell. There’s also a lot of discovery that happens in the rehearsal space, and I can find out so much about the character in just one day of experimenting and playing.”

Making up the rest of the cast are Peter Hamilton Dyer, Edmund Digby Jones, Rosie Ede and Robert Stocks, with direction from Jimmy Walters (artistic director of Proud Haddock).

“I love The Old Red Lion,” Bonas says. “I think it’s a very special space and I have seen some great pieces of new writing there. The space has history and a story which makes it romantic for me in a funny way.”

Mrs Orwell runs August 1 – 26 at the Old Red Lion Theatre on St John Street: oldredliontheatre.co.uk

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