1984 (shake & stir theatre co)
QPAC, Cremorne Theatre
July 15 – August 2
There is no settling in to shake & stir’s “1984”, which is as it should be given the unsettling nature of its themes. The show begins with a roving spotlight over the audience ahead of a state-sanctioned ‘two minutes of hatred’ barrage. Like George Orwell’s seminal novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, adapted for this production by two of the company’s artistic directors, Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij, the show tells the grim tale of a nation perpetually at war – where cameras monitor every citizen and the Thought Police run a reign of terror.
Winston Smith (Bryan Probets), an editor at the Ministry of Truth (where he re-writes history to align the past with the ruling party’s current political agenda), leads a life of dissatisfaction until he begins a secret, forbidden romance with Julia (Nelle Lee), who transforms his lack of contentment into rebellion against the oppressive regime and its leader Big Brother. When Winston and Julia are discovered, they are detained, interrogated, tortured and ultimately beaten.
The dystopian nightmare features a number of phrases, themes and concepts (thought crime, newspeak, room 101, to name but a few) that are now commonplace in vernacular and understanding, which only compels the difficulty in presenting the work in a manner that is fresh and engaging. Yet shake & stir more than do justice to the original work with this faithful, engaging adaptation.
Its industrial colours and precise production design are harrowing, with a wall of video imagery, including the iconic vision of a Stalin-like Big Brother in watchful, dictatorial presence (courtesy of media designer optikal bloc), both enhancing the story’s frequent references to omnipresent telescreens and surveillance, and complementing the performances though the insight of shared internal monologues and dream sequences. And thanks to Jason Glenwright’s skilled lighting design, the cold sterility of the totalitarian world is cleverly contrasted with the cozy warmth of Winston and Julia’s homely retreat of coffee, jam and artwork.
Actors don’t come much more consummate than Bryan Proberts, who gives a superbly layered performance as protagonist Winston. His final torture scenes linger long after his release from the terror of Room 101, such is the ardour and physicality of his performance. David Whitney is similarly impressive as sinisterly honest inner party member O’Brien.
“1984” is a show of chilling modern relevance. Its dystopian world is a perfect metaphor for many concerns of contemporary society; mass surveillance is now a part of our social, economic and political lives. The experience of its world on stage will leave audiences wrung out and wearied, but with the firm belief that they have seen a double-plus good piece of theatre.