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 its 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 work 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

Wider Earth Wonder

The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre Company and Dead Puppet Society)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

July 9 – August 7

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“The Wider Earth” shares the adventure story of a gentleman botanist on a grand and ambitious adventure. It is a tale we might think we know as it imagines 22-year-old Charles Darwin’s trip on the H.M.S. Beagle’s maiden voyage around the world to survey and primarily chart the coastline of South America. During the trip Darwin recorded many findings and collected a variety of specimens in discovery of evidence leading to his theory of natural selection in a time of religious-reigned science, making him memoir it as being the most important event in his life and determinate of his entire career.

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It is a remarkable tale of forests, oceans and volcanoes told in flashback recollection to his love Emma Wedgwood (Lauren Jackson) and in the hands of Dead Puppet Society, the result is faultless theatre, including a suite of over 20 astonishing animal puppets, great and small, from tiny beetles to a mighty whale.

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Unlike last year’s “Argus”, the animals do not appear in every scene, however, they play integral roles in the narrative, lending themselves so easily to the story given the number of places around the world that the voyage visited.

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From the curious creatures of the Galapagos to a personality-filled companion beagle, Polly, each one is authentic in behaviour and movement. All actors also serve as occasional puppeteers, such as when the stage is besieged by butterflies in the Amazon, a beautiful scene that belies the calamity to follow.

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This is an intimate yet epic production, deceptively simple in its staging. A rotating wooden structure gives versatile shape to hills, houses and also the ship deck, cabin and rowboat.This is supported by a wide panoramic backdrop screen onto which is projected the visuals commissioned of Brisbane artist Anna Straker and filmmaker Justin Harris. Always in motion with various landscapes, it works with narration of an older, reflective Darwin voice-over to support the story and transport audiences to locations like the Andes and the Amazon, and also with lighting to transition mood to conflict, representing the most exquisite visual imagery. Magical music also supports the visual storytelling, enchanting in its original score by acclaimed, ARIA-award-winning Australian singer-songwriter Lior and producer Tony Buchen.

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Under David Morton’s superb direction, every aspect of “The Wider Earth” is perfection. Cast members are all strong. As the young Darwin, Tom Conroy is an engaging protagonist, taking the audience from youthful curiosity to eloquent defence of his emerging philosophy in wonder of the wider earth. Anthony Standish is a powerful, hot-tempered Captain Robert Fitzroy, with whom Darwin clashes. And Thomas Larkin makes for an imposing first mate and friend to Darwin as the Scotsman John Wickham, later first magistrate of Moreton Bay, after which Brisbane’s Wickham Street is named.

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“The Wider Earth” is Dead Puppet’s Society’s biggest production to-date, three years in the making and it is an ambition magnificently realised. Indeed, the production is a gentle balance between the comfort of a familiar classic and the challenge of a cutting-edge work, providing a refreshing take on a story audiences assume to know. Its subtle presentation of the theme of evolution is thought-provoking rather than dogmatic, serving to inspire further independent reading and research as to the scientific luminary’s visionary ideas and life’s work. This is storytelling at its most charming, demanding of audience attention and absorption to the point of becoming lost in the story animal world… everything that theatre should be… making it one of Brisbane’s most definitive theatrical pieces of recent years.

Photos c/o – https://www.facebook.com/qldtheatreco