1984 a review in 2017
It’s impossible to watch the first half of the highly acclaimed and internationally award-winning production of George Orwell’s 1984 without feeling like it’s totally derivative, earnest and stylistically more performance art than play.
The funny thing is that when the book was first published in 1949 the powerful story of how humanity can be controlled by a corrupt and sociopathic totalitarian regime using strategic mind control, terrorism and ubiquitous monitoring, the story of Winston Smith seemed shockingly new but surely science-fiction.
Cut to less than 70 years later and we’re surrounded by Islamofascists using Youtube to broadcast beheadings and recruit the middle-class through ‘2 minutes of hate’; Australia using ‘doublespeak’ to whitewash offshore detention camps where people are abused for years; the United States drowning under fake news and electing a narcissistic ‘Big Brother’ who uses Twitter to distract and conceal; not to mention the daily human rights abuses of countries all over the globe.
All that and then there’s all of us. We are now at the mercy of our own two-way ‘telescreens’ around the clock – each endlessly posting deceptively sunny fake news or disproportionate outrage for free so that a few in the ‘inner party’ can grow rich off our slavish social labours.
Our modern truth dreadfully pulses in the background as you watch Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s inventive post-modern take on this classic political and ethical horror story.
It’s hard to watch unflinching but it’s also hard to care as the first two thirds of this 101-minute, interval-free production is slow-moving, confusing and full of exposition. Further distraction comes from characters deliberately positioned to have their back to the audience, the contrived staging and stilted direction.
Like so much post-modern art, this production creates a mental distance for the audience rather than intimacy or a complex emotional response.
Noteworthy however are the hard-working cast who each play several characters in several locations and times without a change in set or costuming. They deliver their unnatural dialogue with sincerity and energy and the odd Aussie accent (oy oy oy). Their movements are deliberate and choreographed, there’s often characters looming ominously just outside the main action like ghosts or memory remnants, we’re unsure of where or when we are with Winston. Is it real-time or memory or madness?
While this production takes itself very seriously to me it sits on the edge of adult panto and earnest performance art. There’s plenty of multimedia going on too. There are shockingly powerful uses of light and sounds. There’s a giant screen overhead projecting Winston’s private diary scrawls, his inner thoughts or his work snuffing out the truth. It’s all visually stimulating but again emotionally distracting.
The screen is also where the bulk of the love story between Winston (Tom Conroy) and Julia (Ursula Mills) is played out as they spend it mostly in a secret room. The entire stage in the meantime is empty.
This second act was my greatest disappointment. Despite the gusto with which both actors approach the material they have no spark together. None.
On screen we watch as they share illicit real food and coffee, she a wears a dreadfully ugly bright red dress that again demonstrates that design leads to distraction. In the secret room they sleep a lot and shag a little. It’s also where they read and discuss in bland boring angsty detail Goldstein’s resistance book: The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. It’s where Winston hatches the plot that we (the survivors of Year 11 English Lit.) know will doom them. Sadly, for the finale to be a true gut-punch their love affair needed a lot less stagecraft and a lot more subtlety.
However it does lead to the last and by far and away best act when the two of them are hauled away to the Ministry of Love to be interrogated and tortured by the Machiavellian O’Brien (played with such magnetic relish by Terrence Crawford that I was totally with him and not the romantically pathetic Winston).
We don’t see much of Julia again (great!) but we do get an incredibly dynamic and terrifying live shift as the dull wood-paneled vestiges of Winston’s pathetic life fall away to be replaced by a hazy prison and finally a brightly-lit minimalist ‘re-education’ room where the horrible truth is revealed and the even more horrible torture is performed.
Be warned, the torturing is very visceral. The blood looks especially bloody in the stark white empty arena.
Total props to Tom Conroy (Winston) who dials up the anguish, misery, pain and fear to doubleplusplus and maintains it until the last moment. His finger and toe-curling response to Room 101 is unforgettable and grotesque.
It’s these final minutes that stay with you and where the true brilliance of this gripping UK adaptation, seen by over 400,000 people worldwide is finally clear. Thank you Big Brother.
The play is touring Australia through August. http://www.1984play.com.au/
Words by Irena B