When doing an adaption of a book as iconic and beloved as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four there are inevitably high expectations. The book has pervaded popular culture and proved time and time again to be part radical exaggeration and part human prophecy. Even after being published almost 70 years ago it remains common in the best sellers list to this day. It is widely considered to be one of the most integral “must read” books of all time and is dissected by high schools and universities alike, with any level of scrutiny finding complex and nuanced themes. It introduced the idea of “Big Brother” and coined the phrases: newspeak, doublethink, and alternative facts. This book is the pinnacle of what any great writer might hope to achieve. To try and convey the content effectively through an entirely different medium is a monstrous task.
1984 as a play has not struggled competing with the novel and is one the smartest, most moving pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. This version of 1984 – adapted by UK production outfit Headlong, and being staged at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne – knows where it cannot compete with the original text and does not try to, but outpaces it in other spectacular ways. It takes the book and reshapes it, retaining all of the motion and poetry. Boiling it down to it’s essence and re-articulating it eloquently.
The plot of 1984 is just as it was in the book. Winston Smith, a worker of the Ministry of Truth (responsible for editing history archives to align with Big Brother and The Party’s current stance) begins to commit thought crime. All citizens are banned from thinking anti-party thoughts and when Winston begins to keep a journal of his criticism for the government, he is flirting with the death penalty. Even more hazardous – he falls in love.
The show executes the plot with ease and brilliance. It overlays and repeats sections of the play providing a strange feeling of deja vu. Reality and memory are warped. The truth becomes a matter of opinion. The use of repetition and distorting the timeline gives the audience a sense of feeling the surety around you slip. The things you knew are deteriorating. Subliminal messages flicker on the screen.
Another disorienting aspect of the play is the use of lighting. To announce a lapse in memory or a shift in reality the set darkens as a ballistic strobe is flashed into your eyes. The rumble of an atomic strike cuts through the silence. The ringing of an aftershock still fresh in your ears as the assault ends and the set lights come up. The stage is now occupied by an entirely new cast of characters. These phantasms last only a few seconds at most and make for some of the most gripping and clean scene changes you will ever encounter.
It also leads us to perhaps the strongest part of the show. This play has been choreographed to perfection. Often playing out much like dance; the cast are able to drop a cup into mid air only to have another actor catch it effortlessly. Beautiful displays of unison and precision in movement are a testament to the hard work put into this production. The blocking has also incorporated multimedia input allowing the themes of technology and voyeurism to become even more apparent.
Entire scenes take place off stage that are just as devastating and awesome due to the method in which they are caught on camera and projected live onto the screen above the set. Multiple camera angles are used and the way the shots follow the actors is like witchcraft.
The set is not the most stunning to look at – but as you watch the story unfold it becomes apparent that every part of this play has been touched by genius. The set is full of brilliant details that unravel with the story, heightening the drama and surprising the audience.
The plot is riveting and will inspire wonder and torment in equal measure. A gruelling scene of torture is one the most gut-wrenching and fascinating parts of the show, enhancing and building on Orwell’s vision of the Ministry of Love. The show has built to this satisfying crescendo that will have your brain whirling and your heart racing. This is theatre on the edge of your seat. Tom Conroy as Winston gives these moments some disturbing realism in a raw performance sure to leave you stunned.
The show is a twisted and entertaining journey into a world not unlike our own. While the reality of 1984 might frown upon individuality, its clear the collaborators on this work have original ideas in droves. Every aspect of this work is masterful and mesmerising – executed flawlessly.
I confidently rate this a 10/10 production and would urge you strongly to go and devour this show. I am still reeling and captivated the next day and can’t be more honest in my recommendation of this brilliant theatrical gem. The show is extreme and daring. It has pitted itself against one of the most complex and revered texts in literature and comes out swinging, proving itself a champion in it’s own right.
This a show where razor sharp technical production has aligned with a bold and fierce critique of ideology to create a harrowing and revolutionary piece of theatre meant for all of humanity. Now more than ever.