1984Left – Tom Conroy. Cover – Renato Musolino, Paul Blackwell, Ursula Mills, Tom Conroy, Guy O'Grady, Fiona Press, Yalin Ozucelik. Photos – Shane Reid

It was a full house at the opening night of 1984 at His Majesty’s Theatre and the audience gave a collective gasp at the horror played out on stage.

Blame a fear of political correctness, fake news or Donald Trump, but dystopian fiction is having a moment and George Orwell’s almost-70-year-old classic is riding the wave, leaping to the top of the US Amazon bestseller list at the start of the year.

Not surprising then, that this stage adaptation of the novel has enjoyed three successful West End seasons, as well as an international tour, including Broadway last month. This national production is headed by Australian director Corey MacMahon and an Australian cast.

It’s always fascinating to see a novel adapted to stage and co-adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan had their work cut out for them – much of the beauty and poignancy of the novel lies in Winston Smith’s reflections and memories and was difficult to translate to stage.

On the other hand, they didn’t have to work hard to adapt Orwell’s themes of the nature of truth and who controls it, which remain alarmingly relevant today. When a senior advisor to the American President uses phrases like “’alternative facts”, the kind of world portrayed in 1984 is not impossible to imagine.

The play opens where the novel closes, at the appendix, but cleverly looking back on the Ingsoc regime from the perspective of a bookclub – a discussion of the novel within a play about the novel – how very postmodern. Like the bookclub discussion, which merges into something else and then we question whether it was a bookclub discussion at all or a meeting held within or sanctioned by the Party, viewers are meant to re-read and analyse 1984 for themselves, for today. “It’s a mirror; every age sees itself reflected” was a line repeated at the start.

Perth is the last city to host the production and the cast of eight worked together seamlessly – no stutters or hitches to be seen. Tom Conroy was outstanding as the doomed Winston Smith and Terence Crawford as O’Brien – the embodiment of totalitarian thought.

1984 was as brutal as the novel. Both start with a sense of foreboding that only becomes stronger, and last third is dedicated to the interrogation and torture of the protagonist, whose annihilation is foreshadowed throughout.

This production relied on audiovisual technology, which was integral to the experience and made watching it both thrilling and terrifying. A large screen formed part of the backdrop and it was easy to imagine how much easier it would be for the Party if they had been able to harness modern technology. Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons deserve a lot of the credit for the powerful use of lighting and sound, which continued to ring in my ears after the show had finished.

The show ran for 101 minutes without an interval, which gave the audience the feeling of being hemmed in, longing for release in the way Winston does. It was difficult to watch at times and like the novel, it leaves you shattered, with the ultimate submission of Winston Smith to the will of Big Brother. It was an exciting theatrical experience, although it reminded me why dystopia is only good in small doses – more thought provoking than enjoyable.

If you don’t think you’ll be able to handle the graphic nature of this novel on stage, at least dust off your copy of this prescient classic and read it again. It’s frighteningly easy to find examples of doublethink in today’s politics, far closer to home than Vladimir Putin.

Ambassador Theatre Group, GWB Entertainment & STCSA in association with Perth Theatre Trust present the Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse & Almeida Theatre production of
by George Orwell | adaptation Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan

Directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Venue: His Majestys Theatre, Perth WA
Dates: 4 – 13 August, 2017
Bookings: www.1984play.com.au


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