1984

Tue 4th – Sat 8th February 2014

reviews

Sian Avery

at 23:47 on 4th Feb 2014

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On coming into the theatre faced with an open stage holding three identical work cubicles and nine television screens faced at the audience, along with a smoke machine steadily enveloping the entire space in an appropriately dreary haze, it was clear from the beginning that Madeleine Heyes’ rendition of Orwell’s much beloved modern classic would pay due respect to the importance of staging in the difficult transition from the novel form. Indeed, such close attention to detail was maintained throughout, much to the credit of the production team, who successfully managed to convey the bleak dystopian surroundings and convince us of the omnipresence of Big Brother.

As occurred at several points of the play, the opening scene of workers shouting abuse in their blue overalls was inescapably reminiscent of the 1984 Michael Radford film; it was clear that it had been a source of inspiration almost as much as the novel. However, for those who hold the 1949 work dear, there was a pleasing attention to detail, such as the woodland scene in which flowers (unfortunately somewhat comically to those who failed to appreciate the reference) were strewn on the floor to represent the bed of bluebells. This slightly raunchy scene was dealt with smoothly, largely due to Nisha Emich’s performance, who made a convincing rebel of the Anti-Sex League and fittingly brought to life the otherwise monochrome surroundings.

Also worthy of commendation was Jack Ranson, whose performance of O’Brien managed to capture a character who is initially trustworthy and later somewhat deranged. The torture scenes in which he was involved left the audience shocked, as scenes of water-boarding and fingernail removal were uncomfortable to experience and far surpassed the physical fighting, which never quite avoids seeming ridiculous. The use of real water as Winston’s head was submerged on stage was truly very effective and successfully conveyed a sense of physical brutality. As the audience anticipated the depiction of the infamous Room 101, the decision to black it out was well-made rather than underwhelming, as it avoided the issue of convincingly depicting man-eating giant rats while conserving the idea of utter terror.

However, amid these successes were some minor flaws. As is to be expected in converting a novel into a play, many of the scenes, particularly in the first half, felt slightly fractured and bitty. Though the staging decision to leave the lights on for scene changes later made the blackouts more effective, the result was that, though well-orchestrated, they distracted from the dialogue at points. One unfortunate scene in Victory Square was lost under what was supposedly background music, leaving the actors struggling to shout over a noise that really ought to have been lessened. A poorly-timed reaction to a slingshot wound fell slightly amiss; however it is to be hoped such accidents will not be repeated in future performances.

Playing to sold-out audiences each night, ‘1984’ achieves both the sexiness and bleakness of Orwell’s novel; the political passion and dystopian hopelessness. At points challenging to watch, this in itself is truly a mark of the successful enactment of the brutality of Oceanian society.

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Jess Payn

at 02:25 on 5th Feb 2014

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0disagrees

Performing George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, a novel which has become absorbed into the fabric of our cultural consciousness with the potency of its anti-totalitarian message, was an ambitious challenge to take on. Nevertheless, this production, skilfully directed by Madeleine Heyes, succeeds for the most part in conveying the awful power of the Orwellian classic, building to an impressive climax in the play’s second half.

The staging is appropriately utilitarian in style, everything sparse, drab and functional; it’s recognizably the dismal world of Airstrip One, even without the iconic posters of menace declaring ‘Big Brother is Watching You’. Telescreens set on either side of the stage are used to frame, interrupt and form part of the action: an inspired idea which does, however, fail somewhat in the execution, the news-reports and announcements that cut in often proving strikingly abrupt.

Indeed, this felt like a general weakness of the first half of the play: transitions from scene to scene were rarely achieved smoothly, in part because the scenes themselves were mostly so short – and yet the set changed often, making the result inevitably a bit chaotic and hasty. It was hard not to feel that the play was rushing through its first act, eager to get to the crux of Winston and Julia’s arrest, torture and subjugation in the second. Combined with several scenes full of unfocused chitchat, the whole first half did feel a bit unsatisfying.

Yet the play’s second half was breathtaking in its channelling of Winston’s withering political indignation and its careful skirting of melodrama and sensationalism. It would have been all too easy to overstep the mark in depicting the scenes of torture, as Winston is re-educated politically and emotionally; but the production succeeds in creating palpable horror, the characters’ affliction made believable by some highly compelling acting. Jackson Caines in his role as Winston struggled somewhat in the first act to give a convincingly subtle performance, overdoing his character’s fervency and frequently seeming to spit out his lines; he didn’t cope well with what seemed to be the weaknesses of Dunster’s script, which were to lift and isolate Orwell’s particularly aphoristic statements from the novel, delivering them in such a way that it was difficult to forget that they were lines that had been learnt. In the play’s second half, his performance is much more natural, while Jack Ranson is superb throughout as O’Brien. Most impressive were his modulations between mad intensity and softened tones, which proved profoundly threatening as he interrogated Winston. Emich as Julia oozed the necessary sensuality of her character, and helped make up for any awkwardness in the scenes when Caines’ intensity became a little strained.

Music undoubtedly enhanced the tension of the performance: a kind of booming pounding resonated well with the atmosphere of Hate Week, and the undertone of thrumming when the dreaded ‘Room 101’ was first mentioned built a sense of horror that complemented the intensification of Syme’s emotion to hysteric anxiety, as convincingly acted by Rose Reade. That said, the music did have the tendency to drown out or distract from the dialogue at points. In terms of lighting, the contrast between light and dark, like in the brilliant whiteness of the Ministry of Love’s padded cell as opposed to the penumbral atmosphere of the electrocution scene, was effective. It was a bold decision to cast the much-anticipated Room 101 scene in complete blackness: but although successful at first, the darkness did perhaps endure too long in reaching its inevitable climax.

Overall, this rendition of Orwell’s classic is not superlative but still impressive; well worth a watch.

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