SIFA 2018 opens on a chilling note with this dystopian modern classic.
Considered by many to be George Orwell’s magnum opus, 1984 has become the go to model for a dystopian world, a culmination of everything we should avoid becoming at all costs. Yet this is a warning the world seems to have forgotten to heed, as the chilling reality of a society plagued by surveillance and doublespeak seems to have pervaded our daily lives.
In Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s Olivier Award nominated adaptation, 1984 is given a chillingly faithful staging, as the visceral, creeping terrors of the original novel come to life with smart staging and affecting performances. 1984 opens in murky darkness, as gothic bells chime thirteen times, already signalling something is amiss as the play begins. We’re thrust into a bizarre alternate world of 1984, a realm where televised exercise regimes tell you when you’re not trying hard enough, 2 +2 = 5 and your own sanity is determined by the state. A voiceover serves as our narrator, and there’s the creeping sensation that as we’re watching the play, we too are being watched ourselves. The lack of microphones and precise movements and choreography of the ensemble only adds to the realism and believability of the piece.
Chloe Lamford’s multifaceted set hides as many secrets as 1984’s Party does. What initially seems like a simple, wooden room has the ability to transform into a train cabin or a canteen, while the obtrusive screen hanging from the ceiling constantly plays disturbing videos by Tim Reid, displaying propaganda messages and never showing the whole picture. Natasha Chivers’ strobe lighting flashes and Tom Gibbons’ sound design is precisely programmed, working together to create disorientation in our own minds that makes it difficult to tell whether what we’re seeing is real or a figment of our own imagination. The sense that reality itself cannot be trusted, is furthered by the play’s many blink and you’ll miss it moments, as dark figures make fleeting appearances out of the corner of your eye, and before long, you’ll be unable to trust your own sight. It’s a play that’s as much spectacle as it is reliant on the little details, such as the precise repetition of the swoosh of a cloth and the removal of a tray three times, a multisensory image that ends up rooted in your memory, much like the mental reprogramming going on throughout the country.
Like most star crossed love stories, there is no happy ending for protagonist Wilson (a valiant Tom Conroy) and fiery love interest Julia (Rose Riley). But in 1984, its impact is stronger than ever, as we place all our hopes on them to potentially save the world, yet in their failure to even trust each other, thrusts upon us a belief that all is well and truly lost. Terror reaches its pinnacle when Winston goes headfirst against antagonist O’Brien (a terrifying, unrelenting Terence Crawford), and everything comes crashing down in its climactic, visceral torture scenes. As we shift from blackout to bloody reveal, there was a distinct discomfort in the air, raised further still as the house lights came on midway, creating a sense of vulnerability in us when cover of darkness was lifted, and the keen awareness that we were completely visible and being watched. By the time Winston’s spirit is completely broken and thanks Big Brother for sparing his life, it’s hard not to feel an immense sense of despair at this once idealistic man, the fire in his eyes completely extinguished as the ominous 13 chimes sound again to end the play.
1984 is relentless in its staging, and never lets up on its intensity throughout its 2 hour, no intermission runtime, almost as if intended to push audiences to their physical and mental limits. It’s a show that truly puts one’s mettle and focus to the test, bringing us on a thought provoking journey into the very heart of society’s darkness. Bookended by a discussion set in 2050 on whether the events of the play are history or fiction, one realises that as extreme as the content of 1984 are, it’s ultimately the fact that we can no longer tell how much of it has seeped into our real lives that will have us keeping one eye open at night as we lie awake in fear.
Photo Credit: Andi Crown
Performance attended 26/4/18
1984 plays at the Esplanade Theatre from 26th – 29th April. Tickets available from SISTIC