Theatre Review: 1984

1984_Production_c Shane Reid
Photo credit: Shane Reid

What: 1984

Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre

When: Until May 27th (Audio-described and captioned performances are available)

How Much: Adult $40.00-89.00, Under 30 $33.00, Primary/Secondary Student $29.00

If the mark of a classic work of art is that it remains relevant through changing times and generations, George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984 surely qualifies. The vision of the authoritarian surveillance state of Oceania and Winston Smith’s struggle to retain his sanity and individual humanity in the face of a crushing totalitarian government that manipulates language and rewrites history seems never to have slipped from the reading lists of high school English classes. At a time when many people are worried by a climate of fake news, government and corporate secrecy, Wikileaks, surveillance and metadata retention, Orwell’s story contains plenty of food for thought. Now the State Theatre Company of South Australia, led by associate director Corey McMahon, presents a restaging of the successful UK stage production of 1984 adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan and produced by Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and the Almeida Theatre.

1984_Tom Conroy_c Shane Reid
Photo credit: Shane Reid

For their adaptation, Icke and Macmillan were inspired by the original novel’s Appendix, a guide to Newspeak containing mysterious hints that the rule of Big Brother will not endure forever. This show replicates that hopeful touch by including a framing device of a group of companions discussing and analysing a book implied to be Winston’s diary. This device goes some way to undercutting the bleak nature of much of the plot, suggesting that a time and a society after the end of the totalitarian Party could exist – although they could also be inside Winston’s head.

The stage is split between set and actors on the lower half and a large projector screen above – an outsize version of the two-way ‘telescreens’ in every building that allow Big Brother’s government to simultaneously observe and broadcast to their citizens. The scenes where the lovers Winston and Julia spend time together in their secret, “safe” bedroom are also shown only via the screen rather than on the stage. The grainy, 1980s BBC-drama styling of these videos infuses these scenes with an artificial, unreal, and vulnerable atmosphere.

1984_Tom Conroy & Ursula Mills 2_c Shane Reid
Photo credit: Shane Reid

Light plays an important role in the staging of 1984. Citizens of Oceania experience frequent power blackouts – but darkness can be seen as a blessing, a respite from constant surveillance. Flashes of bright floodlights and ringing sounds accompany tense, painful moments in the plot. When Winston is finally captured by the government and taken to “the place where there is no darkness” – the sinister Ministry of Love, where he is imprisoned and tortured – the dim, cosy library-like set of the earlier scenes is transformed into a stark, white, floodlit cell. Even the house lights come on in the Ministry of Love, chipping away at the fourth wall and drawing the audience into the action on stage.

Regarding the acting, many performances came across as stiff and harsh. This may well have been intentional, reflecting the coldness and dehumanisation inherent in the society of 1984. However, it was difficult at times to engage with the characters. In particular, the relationship between Winston and Julia, which could have been moving, fell a bit flat – it was quite difficult to believe that their characters felt any genuine attraction to or affection for each other.

The production effectively evokes the horror of totalitarianism, with plenty of genuinely confronting moments – as well as immersing the audience in Winston’s increasingly distressed and unreliable memories as his mind is unraveled by the Party’s manipulations. The framing device of the reading group adds a faint note of hope that the grim world depicted in 1984 is not inevitable, but Orwell’s warning certainly remains a sobering one in 2017.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Matilda Handsley-Davis

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