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1984: the message amidst the medium

Review: 1984, Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse & Almeida Theatre –
His Majesty’s Theatre, 4 August –
Reviewed by Varnya Bromilow

I remember the first (and only) time I watched Stanley’s Kubrick’s adaption of the Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange. I sat, aghast and writhing in my thinly padded seat at Lumiere Cinemas in the underbelly of the old Entertainment Centre. Munching nervously on buttery popcorn, I waited desperately for the midnight screening to end so that I might go home and (vainly) try to sleep. I remember being unnerved by the laughter in the room as the violence and the Beethoven swelled to a compelling but wholly disturbing climax.

This formative experience kept popping up in my middle-aged brain on Friday night as I sat in His Majesty’s Theatre, surrounded by a capacity crowd. Before the curtain had even lifted, there were clear signs I was in for a confronting experience. Repeated announcements from theatre management warned of violence, loud noise, bright lights and on the whole, entertainments unsuited to the faint of the heart. But I am the faint of heart! I thought. There were paramedics near the exits! I spoke to one of them – she reassured me that they attended every performance, regardless of the show’s content. This was not as reassuring as it should have been. Steel yourself woman! Do your job! I took the proffered earplugs and sat back, awaiting the experience.

Many of you will be familiar with the storyline of 1984. One of Britain’s great men of letters, George Orwell, describes a dystopian future in which Winston Smith is attempting to live a life of free thought in a world where free thought (let alone free expression) is forbidden. Comrades are watched by the ever-present Big Brother, persecuted by the Thought Police and punished via a variety of creatively abhorrent methods. In such an environment Winston becomes understandably paranoid.

This production, by British theatre innovators Headlong, is wholly infused with Winston’s sense of wretched paranoia as he tries to carve out a small space in which to think. From the ominous buzz of the pre-show soundscape right to the last of the 110 minutes, this was a morbidly electrifying experience.

Orwell’s writings are referenced frequently in popular culture with good reason. There are several unnerving similarities between Orwell’s imagined future and our own lived one, a fact this production underlines with force. While much of Orwell’s text is mulched for the purposes of theatrical expediency, key lines stand out for their gloomy prescience. “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what is happening.” Surely that’s not directly from Orwell’s 1949 text, a time when the only televisions were in public places? I looked it up – it is. Talk of terror alerts and the presence of a constant, necessary war is just as eerie. War on terror anyone?

‘Uniformly terrific’: the Australian cast of ‘1984’. Photo: Shane Reid.

Like the book on which it is based, this production of 1984 is a cautionary tale. But while the book has slim glimmers of hope, this incarnation suffers from a one-noted sense of dread. When Winston finds a room of his own, for himself and paramour Julia, doom hangs over that respite. Even if you’re not familiar with the text, you get the distinct impression things aren’t going to end well.

My Kubrickian fears really kicked in during the second half. A starkly white stage is over-lit with glaring fluorescents, a jump-suited Winston sits strapped to a chair in the centre as the menacing O’Brien (the magnetic Terrence Crawford) leers over him, blood-red tie flapping. It is fifteen minutes of pure terror, replete with blaring sound, blood and torturers in gas masks. The theatre-makers have incorporated some interesting strands of reality in these minutes: the suit Winston wears, though blue in colour, strongly suggests the garb worn by those in Guantanamo; a scene that starts with Winston’s mouth sputtering blood alludes to an injury Orwell himself sustained while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It’s clever, but it ain’t subtle.

This production premiered on the West End in London, garnering several awards including Best New Play at the Olivier Awards and a UK Theatre Award for Best Direction. Originally created by Duncan MacMillan and Robert Icke, this is the first time the production has been staged in Australia and features a full Australian cast, the members of which are uniformly terrific. As Winston, Tom Conroy is the clear standout. With a gentle charisma that reminded me of James McAvoy, Conroy’s Winston is a fearful but determined opponent of the system. A deer in the headlights who has decided to take on the car, with the results you might expect.

When the house lights came up, the audience looked suitably stunned. Less perhaps by the startling relevance of the text, than by the sheer spectacle of horrors they’d just witnessed. I came away impressed with the professionalism of the show and the talent of the performers, but certainly feeling as if the message had been a little lost in the clamour of the medium. There may not be televisions in every room watching us but in the internet age surveillance is constant… and yet the outcry of a Winston Smith is largely absent, or are we just deaf to the warning, consumed by our devotion to our screens?

 

1984 plays His Majesty’s Theatre until 13 August.

Top photo: ‘A clear standout’ – Tom Conroy as Winston in ‘1984’. Photo: Shane Reid.

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