‘Nineteen Eight Four’ packs a theatrical power punch

1984 | His Majesty’s Theatre | Until Sunday 13 August | ★★★★ 

George Orwell’s brilliant novel Nineteen Eighty Four is cleverly transformed into a piece of engaging, confronting and visually rich theatre in this acclaimed production that has found success in the West End and on Broadway.

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation first premiered at the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, a co-production between Headlong and Almeida Theatre, and its been touring around Australia for the last few months.

The show runs for 101 minutes (trainspotters will note the relevance), there’s no interval, and if you leave you can’t come back in.

The tale of Winston Smith has universal lessons, one that never loses it’s ability to be re-investigated. The many themes contained Orwell’s book have made his tale of a dystopian future have eternal relevance.

While Orwell’s other great work Animal Farm was a clever allegory on Stalinist Russia, Nineteen Eighty Four’s messages have much greater longevity and broader application.

Winston lives in an oppressive society where the government closely watch the behaviour of citizens, where language is reconstructed and redefined, where citizens who have been charged with crimes are removed from the history books, and society seems to be engaged in a never ending war.

The writers of this show have created a clever way of bringing the audience into what has the potential to be a drab and dreary storytelling experience. Drawing from the appendix of the source material, which is written from a retrospective point of view. The tale is told as a recollection, rather than a Nostradamus-like vision of the future.

At first we see Winston, rebelling against society by writing a diary, something is outlawed in his oppressive world. A bright flash of light blinds the audience, and suddenly he’s surrounded by a group of people discussing his situation – it’s a book club, discussing his story. They’re looking back, but for many of us, it takes us back to our first exposure to this story, which was more than likely in a High School English room.

A moment of darkeness sees most of the actors disappear form the stage. Throughout the show bright flashes and pitch black moments keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Winston begins to rebel against the society around him, he begins questioning things, testing boundaries and eventually finds a soul mate in Julia, a woman who also likes to break the rules. They begin an illicit affair.

They find an old antique shop, where they can regularly meet, it has a discrete bedroom that is not monitored by the authorities. A safe haven, where they can start to make plans to connect with an underground organisation that works agaisnt the government.

They meet O’Brien, a senior member of the inner party, but he soon reveals himself to be a part of the resistance. Julia and Winston pledge their lives to the movement, but nothing is what it seems, and soon everything is ripped out from around them.

The show features a soundscape that hits you like a punch in the face, many additional speakers have been installed in the theatre to give it an extra wallop. The quick changes between scenes and clever lighting sees the office-like set, that serves as multiple locations, take on new atmospheres which each changing scene.

Hand held video cameras and large scale projection sees the production artfully combine visually storytelling tools into a theatrical experience.

The first part of the tale did, at times, become a little tedious.  Once you reach the turning point in the story where the protagonists discover everything they believed is wrong, the drama kicks into high gear.

Terrance Crawford delivers a commanding performance as O’Brien, his voice cuts through the tension of the latter scenes like a perfectly sharpened Chef’s knife. His grandiose enthusiasm for inflicting torture on Winston made his character profoundly interesting.

Tom Conroy does an admirable job playing Winston, his portrayal is theatrical rather than realistic, everything in this delivery is slightly enhanced. Similarly Ursula Mills character of Julia is intentionally slightly awkward, where many may have read her in the book to be a great seductress, here she is more of a librarian.

As O’Brien interrogates Winston about what he’s been up to, we’re presented with some of the plays most gripping, shocking and visually confronting scenes.

If you saw scenes like these in a small play at The Blue Room you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but on the more traditional stage of His Majesty’s Theatre they are confronting.

Watching this show I couldn’t help but wonder, if someone had never read the book, or refreshed themselves with terms like Newspeak, Doublethink, Double Plus Good, and the phrase ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ via the glossary in the program, would it have made as much sense?

On one level its a striking production that potentially successfully condenses a long a meandering novel into a punchy theatrical experience, but maybe less so if you’re unfamiliar with the story.

The greater reward with Nineteen Eighty Four however is how its themes and ideas stick with you after the show.

When Donald Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway talks about “alternative facts” it sounds like a line out of Orwell’s tale. Trump’s labeling of bad news as “fake news” certainly fits in.

While we often ask if the large number of surveillance cameras around the city have created our own ‘Big Brother’, our monitoring of friends activities via Facebook is probably closer to the truth.

In the play Winston starts to question why nobody notices that the governments good news announcement about increased chocolate rations. It is always the same, the amount of chocolate never increases, they announce something old as something new… which has led me to suddenly thinking that the Liberal party had just made a similar announcement about a plebiscite.

Is the situation in the middle east a never ending war? Are all the groups opposed to marriage equality just different heads of the same monster? Is the move towards more inclusive gender pronouns a perfect example of newspeak? Is the way we intercept potential terrorists like a trip to Room 101? Is someone out there methodically deleted news of the past?

This is definitely a show you need to take a few friends along to, then head out for a few drinks and argue about the state of the world.

Graeme Watson

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