Sunday, 26 September 2010

Review: 1984

I recently decided to abandon my university-inspired attempts to integrate live performance with video and the new media and return to my first love, which I still think of as “real theatre”. It’s ironic that the first play I went to see after this decision should be so saturated with video as the Northern Broadsides/ Duke’s Theatre co-production of 1984, directed by Conrad Nelson .

Orwell’s dystopian novel, of course, is greatly concerned with the omnipresence of television, both as a tool of propaganda and surveillance, so the video screens embedded in the set are no mere device, but integral to the theme and plot of the show. The adaptation, by Nick Lane, is an intelligent and evocative one, allowing the cast of five to speak selected lines of description and commentary from the source text as well as dialogue, and building a remarkably complete picture of an oppressive society in a very short time.

Except for Nick Haverson, who speaks sometimes in character as Winston and sometimes descriptively of him, but is never associated with any other personage, the boiler-suited ensemble switch from a sort of chorus-like narration to playing any number of characters. They do it vividly and precisely, seamlessly stepping in and out of the third-person, changing the performance space through the well-choreographed movement of the set’s several wheeled doors along the way. In the very first moments of the production, this chorus tells us how Winston winkles himself into a tiny alcove to write, away from the constant gaze of Big Brother, and their impassive regard underscores not only the voyeurism of the Party, but also our own.

Over the course of the play, plot comes to dominate and narration retreats. Chillingly, Winston and his lover Julia, (Kate Ambler), are never alone in the space, always observed and commented on by the rest of the company. Robustly carnal and touchingly naïve as their relationship seems, it is constantly undermined by the staged regard of the chorus. In contrast, the distressing scenes where Winston is tortured by Chris Garner’s O’Brien are observed only by the audience; in the world of 1984, torture is more intimate than sex.

There is some lovely world-building, in the way the cafeteria worker dishes out meals to nonexistent party members with the same bored precision as to the ones played by the other actors, in the giggling malice of the choral schoolchildren angry at being denied the spectacle of a hanging, in the way Winston and Julia meet among the slogan-chanting crowds. I was struck by the power of some of the smaller vignettes, particularly by Carolyn Tomkinson as a memory of Winston's mother, and Andrew Price’s portrayal of a man who’d rather see his family’s throats slit than enter Room 101.

Which brings me to the only thing I really didn’t like, the video. The TV screens with which the set is studded work well when, as in the novel, they serve as vehicles for propaganda. When we are exhorted to hate Goldstein (Steven Finegold, who like Jill McCleary’s announcer appears only in these recordings), or to do our calisthenics, they are omnipresently oppressive, turning the audience themselves into denizens of Oceania. They are less effective in the animated sequences, showing close-up drawings of the actors, inevitably just out of synch, or when illustrating Winston’s dreams. Worse, they fail utterly to convey the peaceful beauty of the countryside where Julia and Winston’s first assignation takes place: The narrated words, and Julia’s fluid, exultant ownership of the space make that woodland clearing for us, the framed, colourful images just emphasize the grey, constructed nature of the set. Worst of all, the animated rats in Room 101 and Winston’s recorded voice wishing them on Julia instead carry only a tiny fraction of the emotional weight of the previous scenes of physical torture. Having followed Winston to this lowest point, I wanted to experience it through him. This Room 101 was not so much a horror of horrors as a damp squib. I know why it was done that way; Haverson’s Winston could then be seen but a moment later, neatly dressed and perfectly composed, seated in a café, a true devotee of Big Brother.

Though I understand the device, I regret it. The show’s best moments were created in more traditionally theatrical ways. They lay in the considerable skill of the cast, the lighting, and the changing arrangement of the set, and fine moments they were, many more than I can mention; packing emotional and philosophical punch. As the house lights came up at the end, the man seated behind me said, softly: “More powerful than the book.” Animations notwithstanding, I couldn’t disagree.

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