Left – Tom Conroy. Photo – Shane Reid
George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 has seen a surge in sales in recent years, as people suspect we are heading into an Orwellian future, where oppressive regimes manipulate the truth and undermine humanity and civilisation. Is there anything to learn from going back to Orwell’s 1949 text?
New theatrical versions address this question and translate Orwell’s vision to the stage. The latest of these, the 2013 UK production of 1984, adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, first came to Australia for the 2015 Melbourne Festival and is now back with an Australian director and cast. It is a chilling and terrifying production that uses powerful sound and lighting effects to ramp up the horror. Be warned: the physical impact on the audience is torture to the senses.
The production, directed by Corey McMahon, captures the bleakness of Orwell’s novel. Much of the action takes place in drab, dimly lit, wood-panelled rooms, with frequent electricity blackouts, modeled perhaps on the bureaucratic offices where Orwell’s wife worked during World War Two. In a grim canteen, residents of Oceania line up for rations, watched by shadowy figures in the corridor, in repeated scenes that suggest a kind of forced dementia, where individual memories are erased and history is rewritten.
The illicit affair between everyman Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) and co-worker Julia (Ursula Mills) takes place mostly offstage in a bedroom where the couple believe they have escaped the omnipresent ‘tele-screens’ and the watching eyes of Big Brother. These bedroom scenes are effectively depicted onscreen by live video footage, which puts the audience in the place of the voyeur, the watcher, part of the surveillance that dominates Oceania’s world.
The dingy set is eventually replaced by the monumental edifice that slots into place as the infamous Room 101, the torture chamber in the Ministry of Love, where Winston is interrogated and reprogrammed, a tiny figure at the centre of a gleaming, high-walled space, dazzled by lights.
Tom Conroy ably conveys Winston’s early hopes and passions, and later despair and agony, through a strong, physical performance. What seems to be lacking, across the whole production, is dramatic dialogue. Perhaps the director’s intention is to portray the banality of existence and the quenching of the individual spark, but the lightly voiced and sometimes expressionless delivery of the actors’ lines makes for poor theatre. This is a text-based play, but the power of the dialogue falters under the onslaught of the spectacular.
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan reframed the story by adding extra characters to form a book club, living in an indeterminate future, who comment on Winston’s diary and examine the doctrine behind ‘Newspeak’, the language of Oceania that eliminates any subtleties in English (‘Oldspeak’) and simplifies vocabulary to a stark black and white lexicon. This flash-forward left me as confused as Winston, as he constantly writes and scrubs out the date 1984 in his diary, trying to orientate himself in time and space. Integrating Newspeak into the main characters’ dialogue would have been a more powerful way of conveying the insidious undoing of our language and our diversity of thought, one of Orwell’s chilliest predictions.
Ambassador Theatre Group, GWB Entertainment & State Theatre Company South Australia present the Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse & Almeida Theatre production
Co-adapters and directors Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan
Associate director Australia Corey MacMahon
Venue: The Comedy Theatre | Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Dates: 2 – 10 June 2017
Tickets: $55 – $119