Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s award winning adaptation of George Orwell’s spookily prescient classic 1984 comes to QPAC.
In a dystopian future world, Winston Smith is the everyman who works for the Ministry of Truth, altering records and essentially changing the past to the whim of the mysterious and powerful political force, ‘The Party’, embodied by Big Brother, *Cough * Trump *Cough *Alternative Facts *Cough. It’s a world where Winston struggles to keep a hold of the truth, his own mind, and his humanity.
Production-wise, this 1984 is stunning. Natasha Chivers’ lighting is bleak and confronting and brings the terror of surveillance off the stage into the audience. The sound design is at times subtle, at times incredibly big, uncomfortable and disconcerting- much like the subject matter. The same set pieces (a timber panelled room, with table and chairs) are used to indicate different spaces with varying degrees of effectiveness (I’m glad I knew the story).
The highlight of the show was the massive set change (again, without spoilers…). All of a sudden, and very dramatically, the set was literally stripped. The moment felt so brutal. It was like a mask falling away to reveal a hideous reality that you must accept or be thrown in jail naked and shivering.
Like the novel, this is a fascinating exploration of the importance and/or existence of objective truth. In a world where personal freedom and simple pleasures like wine, chocolate, coffee, sugar, tea and sex are carefully controlled by The Party, individuality is being erased and replaced by homogeneity and compliance. Poignantly, the most intimate and innermost secrets and moments of the characters are broadcast across the white roof of the set. It’s a reminder of how we now welcome surveillance into our lives as a way of validating our worth, our very existence… and a reminder to value privacy.
Two aspects of this production were a little disappointing. Tom Conroy’s Winston Smith was constantly on edge, anxious, and twitchy. He would have been caught by The Party’s Thought Police in minutes. What makes Winston such a compelling character in the novel is his ability to maintain a veneer of obsequence, masking his inner hatred of the repression of The Party. Without that veneer, Winston’s position becomes unconvincing and untenable. Why fear The Party and its reach when it can’t spot a traitor in plain sight? However, without spoilers (and for those of you who know the story) I hasten to add that Conroy has fabulously haunted eyes and is achingly earnest and vulnerable when he is at the Ministry of Love and with Julia. Speaking of Julia, Ursula Mills’ radiance makes her an excellent embodiment of the maxim ‘live for the moment’. O’Brien (played by Terence Crawford) is terribly menacing with his softness and deliberate fluid movements that are like an orchestra conductor.
The second aspect I found trite was the addition of a futuristic book club that was reading ‘1984’ and analysing it like a high-school English class. I personally dislike it when shows try and tell you what message to take from them (disclaimer: I realise the potential hypocrisy here as a reviewer, I sort of tell you what shows are about). Further, it clouded the beginning of the show as it was unclear who the book club people were and was confusing to those who know the book and knew this wasn’t a part of the story, and possibly also confusing to those who don’t know the book. Perhaps it was intended to mess with our experience of time and memory (much as The Party does) but it was unnecessary and did not improve on the original story.
These minor gripes aside, this is still a compelling and terrifying, yet beautiful adaptation of one of my all-time favourite books. It certainly is an intense experience and know quite a few people in the audience were overcome (there was vomiting, panic attacks, people just having to get out of the theatre – the works). Certainly, the play is dark but any violence is merely suggested with very carefully timed lighting and a little stage blood. It is a testament to the performances and the general oppressive and threatening atmosphere that gets under your skin so effectively.
1984 is both a bleak reminder that words matter, facts matter, the truth matters, and a tragic testament to our inability to learn from the past.