Left – Tom Conroy. Cover – Renato Musolino, Paul Blackwell, Ursula Mills, Tom Conroy, Guy O'Grady, Fiona Press, Yalin Ozucelik. Photos – Shane Reid
Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) is trapped in the ultimate totalitarian regime. The government of Big Brother watches its citizens on TV screens everywhere, as symbolised by the massive TV screen that runs that length of the stage. The anger of the masses is defused daily during the Two Minutes’ Hate in which government traitors are identified to the jeering boos of the crowds. Scariest of all, language itself is controlled and gradually reduced. Within decades, there will be no words left to express opposition to Big Brother. When Winston finds himself uttering the words “Down with Big Brother”, he knows his capture is inevitable.
George Orwell wrote his novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four in 1949 when he was ill with tuberculosis and acutely aware of his own demise. Much of the novels’ politics were inspired by events in Stalinist Russia. “Newspeak” “Cold War” and “doublethink” are all terms from the novel that have entered our vocabulary.
Comparisons to 1984, have since been made whenever people feel the government is impinging too much on their personal freedom. The novel, made its way on to the best seller list when Donald Trump became president. Soon after, Trump took Newspeak to a whole new level with his talk of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. Is Big Brother watching us closer than ever, storing our metadata for purposes yet unknown or perhaps, we are just watching too much Big Brother, voting off contestants in a modern version of the Two Minutes Hate.
However these frequent comparisons with current events overlook the true struggle of the book which is a personal rather than political one. Winston is ultimately fighting to maintain his sanity in the face of an oppressive organisation. Big Brother could just as easily be a school, university or workplace. It is this very personal struggle of Winston’s that adapters Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan encapsulate so brilliantly. Winston hears a voice saying “Where are you Winston?” throughout the play. The voice is a chilling aural embodiment of Winston’s constant questioning of his own sanity. The struggle to find himself becomes even more important than the struggle to bring down Big Brother.
This is a chilling thunderbolt of a production and yet the viewer is still left with some reservations. The first half seems a little rushed if you are overly familiar with the story. Kind of like an attempt to get the audience up the speed with selected highlights from the novel.
Terrance Crawford plays Obrien, Winston’s eventual interrogator, as a charismatic smooth talking, suit wearing politician. This takes some getting used to for those of us in awe of Richard Burton’s portrayal of the character as a quietly menacing man with a military like precision to his work in in Michael Radford’s film version made in 1984.
The sound and lighting effects are nothing short of abrasive. Sound designer, Tom Gibbons’ blasts of sub base and white noise are a devastating combination, together with Lighting designer Natasha Chivers’ piercing strobes light around the perimeter of the stage. These are used throughout the play pre-empting Winston’s inevitable torture in which they are cranked like electrical volts through the audience.
1984 promised to be one of the plays of the year and it doesn’t disappoint. Bursts of sound and lights during scene changes ensure no letup in tension before a palpably disturbing climax. Here the near empty grey stage reflects the brutal minimalism of the lighting and sound. Remember to breathe as the actors take their bows.
This brisk production leaves you with no time to distract yourself with your own thoughts. Exactly as Big Brother would have wanted it.
Sydney Theatre Company in association with State Theatre Company South Australia and by arrangement with Ambassador Theatre Group & GWB Entertainment presents the Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre Production
by George Orwell | adaptation Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 28 June – 22 July 2017
Tickets: $105 – $77
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au