Have you ever thought that the government is watching us, manipulating our lives and distracting us with violent entertainment to hide an uglier, more substantial truth? Renowned English author George Orwell explored these ideas in his 1949 novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, which has since been transformed by Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre Productions, and co-adapted by West End directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, into a theatrical production that is truly a revolution in itself.
Now this 101-minute-long play is touring Australia and being led by Australian Assistant-Director Corey McMahon, and an astonishing Australian cast that has reinvigorated the passion and power behind Orwell’s characters. Winston Smith, a diligent worker on the outside, but a rebelling insurgent within, was given a powerful performance by Tom Conroy on Friday night at the premier of 1984 at His Majesty’s Theatre, alongside his sensual and ferocious love-interest and “comrade”, Julia (Ursula Mills), and the outright frightening O’Brien (Terence Crawford), who cruelly manipulates the protagonists.
The play begins slowly, struggling to convey who Big Brother is and what this dystopian future looks like; for those who haven’t read Orwell’s famed novel, be warned, you may initially be confused. In short, Big Brother is the tyrannical, autocratic ‘Inner Party’ that rules over the people of former Great Britain and controls them through omnipresent camera surveillance, openly encouraging hatred and violence towards a “foreign enemy”, creating a state of perpetual war and normalising betrayal between fellow citizens and families, who decry each other as “thought criminals”. Underneath Winton Smith’s façade of faithful, mindless servant to the Party, is his inner rage and desire to know the truth behind Big Brother. One of his acts of defiance is to go against the Party’s prohibitions on sex and expressions of love, by beginning a romantic relationship with his fellow comrade and revolutionary, Julia.
Understandably this incredibly complex plot is difficult to explain to the audience in a short period of time, and as such this play as a whole is a feat of theatrical wonders in its successful adaption of Orwell’s layered literary universe to the dramatic stage. Despite the slow start, the audience is immediately pulled in to the action by the brilliant lighting and sound, designed respectively by Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons. The sense of paranoia and fear that Winston feels in Orwell’s book, his inability to trust anyone and his belief that everyone is watching him, is expressed perfectly in this stage adaptation. The flashing strobe lights, the flickering lamps and the coordinated movements of the actors as they turn to look at Winston as one, raises the hair on one’s skin and sets the dangerous tone for the rest of the play.
The set design, lighting and special effects work seamlessly together to create a piece of art that is truly innovative and delightfully fresh. 1984 rejects the traditional idea of what a theatrical production should look like, combining film, audio and stage performance to create an original and thrilling play. Everything feels so real and so close, that you can touch it: smoke drifts from the stage across the audience, hanging visibly in the air; characters appear and then disappear in seconds, becoming a different person as they cross closed doors; and when Winston bleeds, you can’t help but reel away in horror while red liquid stains the stage floor.
Yet what undeniably makes this play so fantastic is the genius of Orwell and his ideas, because ultimately, they are just as powerful and relevant as they were when he first published the novel in 1949. Lines such as, “The destruction of words is a beautiful thing”, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four”, and “Sanity is not statistical”, are all food for thought. This play will undoubtedly make you question your society and yourself, if nothing else. Most importantly, it makes you question your own sense of reality. If Winston’s world is a lie, then could mine be too?
Everything in this play is proven to be appearance only. Nothing is real and everything is interchangeable. The whole set is removed at the end, revealing that even the reality the directors had constructed for over an hour was fake. With an increasing tempo that keeps the audience’s mind racing, we are made to feel an overwhelming sense of foreboding doom for Winston and the common people. “The people will not revolt. They will not look up long enough from their screens to notice what’s happening,” says O’Brien coolly, and the audience chuckles, if not slightly apprehensively, seeing the depressing truth of these words and their relevance to our own technology-saturated lives today.
1984 has captured the eerie psychosis and fear of Orwell’s dystopian future perfectly, taking the brilliant ideas of the author and giving it new life in this stage adaptation. In only one instance has Icke and McMahon diverged from the novel. A new perspective is added in the shape of a group of book club characters from the future, who read and discuss Winston’s journal. In a way, they are representative of us as the audience, because we are all looking back on the world Orwell created. This makes it even more terrifying when one of the characters asks a very good question: how are we to know that the war has not ended, and that Big Brother is not still in power? That the society we live in today is just one they have constructed, and we have been made to believe that we are free … when really, we aren’t? The other book club members laugh her off, but the audience isn’t laughing. After watching this play, anything seems possible … and Big Brother always wins.
1984 is running at His Majesty’s until August 13.