Reviews, Stage, Theatre

1984 theatre review (Melbourne Festival)

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One challenge for any adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four is how to keep it fresh. The book is so proverbial, so much part of the cultural furniture, that there is a risk that any theatrical version will become a series of dramatised, over-familiar quotations. Or, to put it subjectively, there was a part of me that, for all 1984’s rave reviews, was dreading the whole thing: here we go again, telescreens, Two Minutes Hate, “How many fingers am I holding up?”, rats, all that.
UK company Headlong’s Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, who adapted the novel and directed, have solved this problem two ways: first, by tweaking and embellishing the text just enough for the show not to seem predictable for those who know George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four well, and doing so in an intelligent way that doesn’t mess with the important things; and, second, by the excellent imaginative staging (design by Chloe Lamford, sound by Tom Gibbons, lighting by Natasha Chivers) and whipsmart direction.
In the first section a room that looks like an old-style office — wood panelling, frosted glass windows — does service for Winston’s flat, the Ministry of Truth canteen, Mr Charrington’s shop, the woods where the lovers meet, and so on.
Overhead is the video screen on which some of the scenes are played and on which we see Winston at work rewriting the past. The costumes and fittings are period-neutral, with a tilt to the 1940s, or a more generalised English drabness. (The boiler suits of the book are largely, though not entirely foregone.)
In the later sections the stage is transformed entirely: it isn’t just that the set changes but the visual idiom does also: a naturalistic look gives way to stylisation, a confined space to a big one. If the earlier set looks like TV, the later looks like opera.
Icke and Macmillan have taken a cue from the Appendix to the novel, a mock-scholarly essay about Newspeak, to imagine that at some point in the 21st century the Party has been overthrown: the narrative frame is a group of people sitting around discussing Winston Smith’s diary as if it were an historical document. (They also sound rather like a book club discussing Nineteen Eighty-Four.)
This may seem like a lightening of Orwell’s pessimism, but Icke and Macmillan provide their own: how do we know the Party really was overthrown and didn’t just change its style of repression? one of the characters asks. The audience is nudged at times in the direction of contemporary relevance (“No-one looked up from their screens long enough to notice what is happening.”), but mostly allowed to draw its own conclusions about surveillance and misinformation.
It’s not the characters that the novel is valued for, but the three principals — Matthew Spencer as Winston, Janine Harouni as Julia and Tim Dutton as O’Brien — all do good work. They function as icons as much as anything else: Spencer’s soft, guileless handsomeness is a good visual signifier for Winston’s idealism and ultimate helplessness; dark-haired, sharply pretty Harouni embodies perfectly Julia’s fierceness. You can see just why Winston would be afraid of her. With the adaptation not having tried to whitewash Orwell’s gender attitudes, though, she is still very much a male fantasy. Dutton is as urbane and avuncular as the book specifies.
The direction is lively and varied and there is always something new to look at. The actors fill and empty the stage with almost magical dispatch, while repetition is used to suggest a world where no-one can remember what happened yesterday. The (inevitable) use of video is well-handled — we never see on stage, except fleetingly, the room over the shop where the lovers meet. And, more generally, the paraphernalia of totalitarianism — harsh sound and light, loudspeaker voices, men in gasmasks, torture — all make for a powerful experience. 1984 really does bring Nineteen Eighty-Four to life again.
[box]1984 is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre, until 25 October[/box]

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