1984's Dystopia Made Chillingly Tangible

Photo: Shane Reid

$45 student tickets | 101 minute runtime, no interval | closing night 29th July

 

Warning: this play contains very loud noises (including gun shots), bright and flashing lights, and simulated violence. Some audience members may find scenes distressing. The play is unsuitable for any viewers suffering PTSD or epilepsy.

 

1984 is a brutal, mesmerising production. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have created a tightly choreographed masterpiece of an adaption. They conjure the deeply unnerving essence of Orwell’s dystopic vision without getting bogged down in the details of an exact reproduction. Through disconcerting repetition and fleeting figures in the wings, the audience joins in Winston’s maddening sensation of self-doubt. Meanwhile, abstract visions of the future derail the familiar narrative of the novel, displaying a contemporary relevance to our hyperconnected online society.  

The play is an incredibly visceral experience. Curtains rise on a claustrophobic room eclipsed by an enormous screen, and the scene framed by a menacing metal lattice of lights and speakers. Winston – and the audience – are painfully pulled from scene to scene by blaring tannoys and blinding lights. More than simple shock, however, the play excels in building tension and suspicion until the inevitable climax. Winston’s torture in Room 101 is chilling, and the psychological abuse is heightened by what is not shown in moments of terrifying blackness. Terence Crawford excels as the all-powerful O’Brien in this traumatising sequence, and Tom Conroy’s breakdown as Winston is uncomfortably real. Indeed, the entire Australian cast of nine is excellent throughout the play.

The most gripping element of 1984 is its metatheatrical experimentation. Slowly, and with mounting horror, the audience realises the invasive nature of their voyeurism. We are the faceless party: under O’Brien’s watchful eye, Winston dies loving the audience. ‘Thank you,’ he utters, and curtains drop to thunderous applause.

The audience is Big Brother. And, together, they are totally consuming the life of a dissident as a night of entertainment. People laugh at the jokes that Winston and Julia make under the false assumption that they are finally free of observation. People ignore Winston’s harrowing plea for help at the height of his torture – ‘Someone stand up! Do something! Don’t just sit there, help me!’ We peer and pry into every facet of this thought-criminal’s life and we cheer when he is finally reformed.   

1984 closes on the nauseating realisation that the audience is collectively responsible for the normalisation of insidious and dehumanising corporate powers. Beyond anything else, Winston’s graphic torture emphasises the uncomfortable implication that we have wilfully transmuted the authoritarian surveillance state into something sleek and palatable. You leave the theatre with an acute awareness that Big Brother is not only watching you, but that you are encouraging him.

Jack Foster 

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.  Literature is theatre.

Recent political controversies over freedom of speech and government surveillance makes George Orwell’s 1984 feel frighteningly relevant. It’s no wonder, then, that sales of his magnum opus have hit record heights.

This all hit home to me watching the State Theatre Company’s adaptation of 1984 at the Canberra Theatre Centre – a production which, I feel, could not have come at a better time.

The play is as stirring as you would expect. When I entered the theatre on opening night, I was warned by surrounding screens to expect graphic content, bright lights, pyrotechnics and sudden noises. I was not disappointed – at least not in these effects.

The play relies heavily on the audience having read the book before stepping into the theatre. A recurring gimmick involves the running commentary of a book group debating Winston’s position as fact or fiction – a distinction underlined by Orwell’s initial story. On one hand, this is a clever approach. The book so cleverly blurs the line between fact and fiction, so why shouldn’t the theatrical adaptation think outside the box? The result, although effective, does make the plot very difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with the story.

Central elements of the novel are dulled down in the play. The impossibility of conveying an inner monologue without a voiceover means that these defining aspects like the power of ‘doublespeak’ are not given justice onstage. These themes are sacrificed for an eerie motif of looping scenes that create a sense of déjà vu and abrupt scene changes to disorientate the viewer. Winston Smith lives in a continuous present where everything is repeated and nothing is concrete or lasting, this is so well captured to the point that it almost feels nightmarish.

The play is nothing if not a multi-sensory experience. Sounds, pulsing lights and camera angles play to the audience throughout the production. I found this insistence to be so repetitive that the blinding lights and deafening noises stopped being jarring and, personally, just ended up being annoying. Still, the production proved to be admirably restrained in depicting violence, preferring to rely on imagination rather than gore.

As someone who worshipped this book and thought it should remain untouched, I was always going to be difficult to please. I would consider this play to be an extension of Orwell’s masterpiece rather than a version of it – a study in what is permanent and what can be swept under the rug. Rather than chronicling the story itself, Icke and MacMillan explore the sensory aspects of time, truth and madness. It is disorienting, confronting, fascinating and, yet, completely worthwhile. Is it enjoyable? Not in the common sense of the word. But, it is an experience unlike any other, and one I would highly recommend.

Alex Elgue