2017 is the right time to stage 1984. With George Orwell’s text first published in 1949 and this adaptation first performed in 2013, it eerily mirrors our present day and remembers its own war-fraught era of inspiration.
We start with poor Winston (an engrossing Tom Conroy), the historical revisionist employed by The Party to erase records and memories that don’t match a desired history, toiling at a desk. Sitting in this stately, wood-panelled room, Winston frets about the past, present and future, and nothing is quite right.
As Winston worries, the audience is treated to repetition, flashes back and forward, creepy pauses in dialogue and excellent tricks of the eye, leaving us almost as confused as Winston is about just what’s happening. Are we watching Winston’s own fractured memory jolting back and forth, or is this how Big Brother’s surreal authoritarian world actually works? While Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of 1984 mostly sticks to its source material, these interpretive sacrifices help to convey such a broad story in 101 minutes.
Nervous laughter bubbles through the audience as the show continues, on-edge, waiting for the next shock, or perverse comment from Winston’s comrades. Precision is prized in authoritarian regimes, and all the smoothly oiled elements of 1984, from the acting to the sound, lighting and breakneck set changes are tuned precisely to inspire dread. Particular compliments must be paid to the sound design here, which switches between sledgehammer bangs to the light-as-a-feather squeal of old television sets that remind us, yes, Big Brother is watching them all.
Of course, there is humour to somewhat relieve 1984’s pressure, be it in subtle self-referential gags, or the pride Parsons (Paul Blackwell) feels for his psychotically trained daughter, but most of the audience’s chuckles are born from discomfort and awe.
1984’s themes of control versus submission, the splintering of objective truth and pervasive surveillance strike a strong tone in today’s political climate, but also provide vivid insight into the fears of a post-WWII population wary of technology’s advances. There is a lot to visually link this story to its original time and text too, including the mid-20th century costumes and sets. Things like Orwell’s blue overalls are mostly jettisoned here, but that calmingly authoritarian shade of blue is sprinkled throughout, from the chairs around a half non-existent table to the warning lights that precede 1984’s grotesque finale.
Perhaps the weak link here is its love story, which feels hollow in the present-day mostly due to the underwritten love-interest, Julia (Ursula Mills). Julia is strongest when Winston is suspicious of her odd, robotic behaviour, but once they’ve settled into love she appears to have no agency outside of Winston’s plans, and the romance sort of dies.
There is plenty to like in this big and bold 1984. It reminds us that the present will one day be history, and asks just how we will remember it.
1984 continues at Her Majesty’s Theatre until Saturday, May 27, and tours nationally thereafter
Photography: Shane Reid