When George Orwell created his powerful and provocative novel underlining the most perilous consequences of totalitarianism, 1984 addressed an audience that lived in a world in which ruthless dictatorial leaders destroyed countless lives and entire states. In 2017, we can still apply the mirror and see the concept of the shaping of reality and therefore, history in a contemporary world.
In 2013, co-adaptors and directors Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke staged their own iteration of Orwell’s dystopic classic at the UK’s Nottingham Playhouse, which was followed by a much-lauded West End transfer later nominated for Olivier Awards. Having been seen by over 400,000 people around the world – including a sold-out season at the 2015 Melbourne Festival – Icke and Macmillian’s 1984 is currently in the midst of a four-month Australian tour, playing Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre until 22 July.
In 1984, Orwell conceived of a future world that won’t abide the concept of original thought. The ruling Inner Party scrutinises the lives of every member of the population through the use of ubiquitous two-way television screens (telescreens), cameras and microphones. It’s empowered the Thought Police to weed out individuals whose personal and political thoughts might ultimately lead to disruption of the status quo, and to enforce this through regular propaganda sessions, torture and even executions or erasures. And in a daily routine known as ‘Two Minutes Hate’, the faces of these ‘thought criminals’ and enemies of the state are broadcast on telescreens for all to see, both an opportunity for mass chastisement and a locus for the objectification of the ‘enemy’ and, one suspects, a channel for rage venting.
At the centre of 1984 is Winston Smith (Tom Conroy), an employee of the Ministry of Truth, which is dedicated to altering historical records to reflect the government-endorsed version of events. It’s also responsible for promoting the proliferation of a new language, Newspeak, the purpose of which is to attempt to render thoughtcrime impossible by eliminating words from the language. Smith’s own responsibility, as a records editor, is to amend the archives to ensure any reference to the existence of rebellious individuals is eliminated.
As we’re introduced to Smith, we learn that he’s decided to write a diary. But this ordinarily innocuous activity may lead him down the path of self-awareness or reflection – and that’s unacceptable to the ruling party. So, how can he possibly undertake such a blatant act of dissention and escape Big Brother’s constant gaze?
Oceania, the name Orwell has given to the fictional super state that provides the setting for this story, is a genuinely terrifying place, and Macmillan and Icke deserve commendation for their success in vividly recreating a world that convinces as the stuff of nightmares. Even before the production begins, unsettling ambient noise flows from speakers meaning that one is on edge, and the narrative pacing ensures the audience can never relax into a comfort zone.
As central figure Smith, Conroy is outstanding. He is a wiry, seemingly middling man with larger aspirations. Conroy plays a man increasingly out of his depth. In the role of Smith’s love interest Julia, Ursula Mills is wonderful in portraying a character so externally conformist, yet totally unbridled in her nature once the surface is scratched. The essential chemistry between Conroy and Mills is there to make this pairing work. As O’Brien, Terence Crawford is strong, appropriately enigmatic and slightly unnerving when the character first appears. This O’Brien is disturbingly ordinary, making a lie of the caricature of the villain. The supporting cast is also impressive.
Clocking in (very deliberately) at 101 minutes, the piece moves along at a consistently good pace and there are some slick scene changes, perfectly punctuated by an excellent use of sound effects. In fact, Tom Gibbons’ sound design is one of the standout aspects of this production. Similarly, Natasha Chivers’ lighting choices are superb, including a fairly frequent use of blackout to tremendous effect. And in terms of set and costume design, Chloe Lamford’s work is also impressive; her interpretation of Oceania feels very much in line with what a person in 1949 – unaware of the ultimate visual guise it would take – could and would imagine the world to look like in 1984.
Macmillan and Icke’s production of 1984 is compelling and highly evocative. While replicating the power and poignancy of Orwell’s own text is near impossible, this staging overflows with takeaways for today’s theatregoers as to the absolute importance of having the ability to challenge, and to listen to dissenting voices. It is problematic in these polarising times that our tendency to exist in ideological bubbles, which serve to reinforce our own beliefs, can make us very susceptible to “alternative facts”. It’s not a giant step then to accept versions of things that are objectively wrong.
1984 – REMAINING AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES
Venue: Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre – 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Season: Playing now until 22 July 2017
Tickets: on sale 13 Feb 2017 from Box Office (02) 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au
Venue: Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre
Season: 25 – 29 July, 2017
Tickets: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or Box Office on (02) 6275 2700
Venue: His Majesty’s Theatre
Season: 4 August – 13 August 2017
Tickets: on sale from 9am (AWST) 12 December 2016 from ticketek.com.au