Big Brother betrayal

1984 (4 Stage Productions)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

October 19 – 22

Undertaking an on-stage production of George Orwell’s bleak dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is always going to be an ambitious undertaking, especially so given its recent appearances on Brisbane stages through shake & stir’s frantic and fearful take and Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s hyper-real warning against allowing ignorance to be truth. Comparative to these works, however, 4 Stage Productions’ “1984” languishes in the classic text, although not always in a good way.

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Lighting evokes an ominous foreboding in the pre-show illumination of desks and chairs that are spaced out across the stage in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth. A large telescreen towers centre-stage in guard against thought crime amongst the superstate’s citizens and in order for the Ministry’s workers, like all citizens, to view newscasts, engage in a daily two minutes of hate session against enemy of the state Goldstein and his brotherhood of traitors, and all hail and receive verbal directions from party leader, (in this case a not-so-menacing) Big Brother. A now-female Parsons (Ashley Rae-Little) is being moved to the Bureau of Hate, despite being an utterly loyal and thus ideal member of the Outer Party. The reason why is not of her concern, she is told, because in this dystopia Ignorance is Strength, just as War is Peace and Freedom is Slavery.

When Comrade Winston Smith (Christopher Batkin) arrives, he is the only one who remembers the former occupant of the empty space next to him who has become an unperson, the newspeak descriptor for someone who has been killed and no longer exists in any record, as he explains to replacement employee Julia (Jessica Stansfield). This alteration of Julia’s introduction from the original text’s plot allows for exposition about the propaganda and historical revisionism purposes of the Ministry and unnecessary additional foreshadowing of individual fears to later shape experiences in Room 101, the basement torture chamber in the Ministry of Love, in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia with the object of breaking down their resistance.

The story follows Outer Party member Winston falling in love with Julia.With the help of an Inner Party co-conspirator O’Brien (Richard Lund), the couple manages to hide away from Big Brother, the cult of personality party leader until they are captured by the Thought Police in their rented room and are delivered to ‘the place where there is no darkness’, for interrogation.

Although as the enigmatic Julie, Jessica Stansfield never seems truly engaged in in relationship with Winston, Christopher Batkin is excellent as the everyman protagonist, perpetually paranoid and diminutive in physicality, but also harrowing in confrontation of his feared Room 101 reality. As the deceptive O’Brien, Richard Lund is imposing in his lead of Winston’s interrogation from double-plus ungood arithmetic to admission that two plus two is five. Ashley Rae-Little embraces the character of Parsons with almost excessive gusto, making the naïve and suggestible Outer Party member unlikable from the start, while Tony Nixon lays a steadying hand across all of his scenes as Winston’s intelligent language-specialist colleague, Syme, whose insight in the authoritarian and controlling measure of the government of Oceania serves as explanation of the principles of the restricted grammar and vocabulary of Newspeak in restriction of freedom of thought, personal identity, self-expression and free will.

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Not only does the production impressively include 3 D holographic projections, but it makes good use of all parts of the stage. Repeated motif mentions and character question and answer and paraphrasing repetition slow its pace. Indeed, its over-explanation seems like an unnecessary telling rather than showing of the story, especially as the text is seminal enough for audience members to have even the passing familiarity that is required to follow the narrative.

4 Stage Productions’ “1984” is a show of much potential, but one in need of an edit, especially in supporting scenes such as the couple’s rent of a shabby room above an antiques shop and when Winston attempts to share with his love the contents of Goldstein’s heretical book outlining the history and ideology of the party. Although its journey is sometimes arduous, however, this “1984” still takes us to an unambiguous place, with its fake news ending showing how horribly relevant Orwell’s dystopian vision of a surveilled and totalitarian world is to modern audiences.

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Politics at play

1984 (A new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

June 14 – 18

The Lyric Theatre filled with school groups for a 100 minutes long show with no intermission and complete lockout for its duration may not sound like a likely-to-work combination, but in the case of “1984”, experience of the show is so engrossing to the entire audience that none of these things matter. The new adaptation of one of the greatest dystopian novels ever written, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” speaks to more than a literary audience, offering topical warning against allowing ignorance to be truth, confirming the accuracy of its own (paraphrased) words that it doesn’t matter when it is read, it can always be applied to the future.

It begins with members of a bookclub meeting in cozy, timber-clad reading room to discuss an intriguing text. Then reality is fractured into the text’s storyline, where life for citizens in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, is dictated by omnipresent government surveillance, overseen by the totalitarian party leader Big Brother. Protagonist Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) is a member of the outer party, working in the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism, to remove ‘unpersons’ from record.

diary.jpgWinston knows in his heart that the world in which he is living is monstrous. But giving voice to his thoughtcrimes, is another matter, especially if noting them in a diary, which is an individualistic, defiant act punishable by death. Risking everything, he begins a passionate relationship with Julia (Ursula Mills) who shares his loathing of the Party, until the Thought Police capture Winston along with Julia in their rented room and the two are delivered to the Ministry of Love for interrogation.

The initial differences from the source material at the outset may be ill-received by purists (this 1984 is defined by the creator’s interrogation of the novel’s structurally-important appendix), however any over-complication that this evokes is ultimately outweighed by the provocation of the renewed relevance of its themes. And by the time the audience bears witness to the daily Two Minutes Hate in which Party members must express their hatred for enemies of the stage, we are well and truly absorbed. While some aspects are initially overdone, like the overt foreshadowing on Winston’s psychopathological fear of rats, the production ultimately allows the audience to delve deeper into some of the novel’s central themes, while also allowing for appreciation anew of its simple yet eloquent language in show of how language shapes the way we think.

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Staging is slick and impressively sophisticated, both visually and in execution of seamless scene changes as heavily armed police transform the quaint dwelling of early scenes to a hyper-real, highly evolved Matrix-like world of a white dimensionless, empty arena for torture. The soundscape, too, is startlingly loud, which suits the essential discomfort of the terror on show as we are asked to ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever’.

Conroy is excellent as everyman Winston, conveying with clarity the complicated internal emotions of one at once confident in his self-assurance that 2 + 2 = 4 and intellectually able to reason about his resistance, to one who is later so broken-spirited as to be forced into betraying the only person he loves, by his torture in Room 101, the chamber in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear of phobia. And Terence Crawford makes for an aptly-duplicitous O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who poses as part of the counter-revolutionary resistance, The Brotherhood, made even more menacing in his unwavering calm and control than his power.

“The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening,” George Orwell wrote, decades before the smart-phone world of today. And contemplation of this prophecy is what makes “1984” such essential viewing, given its demonstration of the terrifying possibilities of totalitarianism and suggestion that ideology is indeed present in the modern, western world. While certainly Australian audiences are privileged to experience an international touring production of such quality, its worth is ultimately in its comments about the death of individuality (emphasised by the faceless figure on the program’s cover) and how rewriting the truth is but a step away from eradicating history.

Photos c/o – Shane Reid