Theatre Review: The Chilling 1984
In a world where the most gory and explicit of violence no longer has the power to disturb so much as a hair for many people; where the supernatural dominates screens large and small and has progressively desensitised at least the past few generations to fiction-induced terror, there is still one idea that has the power to rock our molly-coddled selves to the core: that of the removal of freedom. It is for this reason, I suspect, that I glimpsed many a frazzled audience member on the way out from the WA premiere of Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s Olivier Award-nominated adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984. Fresh from London’s West End, you can really see why this play received the acclaim it did in the highly anticipated lead-up to its landing in Australia; it is a masterfully grips you in a vice of simultaneous horror and amazement at the totalitarian control playing out on stage.
For those who have not read the novel (which I personally cannot recommend more!), 1984 follows the journey of Winston Smith, a seemingly unremarkable character to those of us who have known nothing but a life of relative liberty. He is utterly human and relatable- his thoughts are vivid, he has personality, resists the idea of control, and falls in love. It is only within the muffled, dark world of Oceania (governed by the Big Brother- led ‘Party’ who despise conventional freedom, thought and love) that we recognise him specifically as a target and innocent victim of mass totalitarian control—and perhaps a mirror up to ourselves.
The production was meticulously choreographed, resulting in a holistic viewing experience, and the blocking and movements of the actors required precise synchronisation with the extraordinary sound and special effect delivery- a difficult feat at best. Tom Conroy extracted the sheer humanity of Winston that has been so beloved over generations of readers and viewers, and delivered a performance that gripped the audience, compelling you at times to laugh and shout and cry with Winston. Ursula Mills brought to life a sexy Julia brimming with the optimism and rebellion of youth, whilst Paul Blackwell and Guy O’Grady portray the uniform compliance of Parsons and Syme respectively excellently, as did Fiona Press as Mrs Parsons, Yalun Ozucelik as Charrington and Renato Musolini as Martin. Terence Crawford as O’Brien was a highlight, utterly believable and reaching the extremes of his character with ease.
If there was one thing that made 1984 the production to see this season (Aside from Icke and MacMillan’s masterful writing), it would be the incredible work of the lighting, sound and special effects crew. The play is fully immersive; perhaps most so at the cruellest parts. It is not a gory or overtly physically violent play—the power lies within the mind and psyche. There was many a time that I literally jumped in my seat, gripping the arm rests – yes, it was that good. Be prepared to see a play of harsh, confronting truth; one that may leave you shaken and emotionally drained.
This adaptation is not in any way a stock-standard one, sticking religiously to its mother-book. The genius of it is that the production as a whole has been given a deliberate modern edge: a hint of a reminder as to the dangers of what plays before us on the stage coming true to life in an age as much rampant with bigoted, power hungry and ultimately dangerous minds as progressive ones. For hours afterwards, it will indeed leave you pondering the motto of the looming and all too familiar party: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength”.