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.
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.
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.