Thursday, August 10, 2017

Theatre: 1984 (★★★)

The novel by George Orwell
Adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Associate Director (Australia) Corey McMahon
Designer Chloe Lamford
Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers
Sound Designer Tom Gibbons
Video Designer Tim Reid
With Molly Barwick, Paul Blackwell, Tom Conroy, Terence Crawford, Coco Jack Gillies, Ursula Mills, Renato Musolino, Guy O’Grady, Yalin Ozucelik, Fiona Press
His Majesty’s Theatre August 8, 2017

Those mavens of modern manners and mores, Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb, have been trolling the swamps of dystopia on their Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast lately. Inevitably the conversation turned to the two current celebrities of that grim genre, The Handmaid’s Tale (SBS On Demand) and 1984 (Sydney Theatre Company at His Majesty’s Theatre).
As it turns out, I was eight episodes into the riveting trials and tribulations of Elizabeth Moss’s Offred, so tearing myself away to the theatre took some doing (a subject Sales and Crabb also ponder).
George Orwell’s 1984 occupies a signal place in our consciousness – or at least, that of my generation and education. Along with Orwell’s other portent, Animal Farm, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, it lurked about our consciousness with its grim messages of the cold evil of the state and our powerlessness against it.
It’s also a chilling and memorable read. And it takes us where, perhaps, only books can go, into the heart and mind of its subject.
And that’s the problem with this staging of 1984.
There’s no denying the technical impact and brilliant stagecraft of the production – it was hard not to cringe at each lighting and sound shock, behind which some brilliant scene changes occur – and there was little to criticise about the performances of Tom Conroy as the ill-fated Winston Smith, Ursula Mills as his strange, nihilistic lover Julie, or the supporting cast.
The audio/visual work was fine (if not, by contemporary standards, particularly outstanding or innovative), and when the shocks, rats and blood got jolting, squeaking and running in the designer Chloe Lamford’s nightmarish white torture chamber, it was all very tense and stomach turning.
But frightening and terrible though it was, it didn’t take us inside Winston’s head, and so we are witnesses to the horror, not inside it, as we are when reading the book.
I also had a problem with the play’s setting; when you read the book, of course, you can set your own scene, imagine your own 1984 (I’m guessing I first read the book in 1968 or ‘69 when the dread, prophetic year was still imaginary).
In the stage version, it looks and dresses like the immediate post-war period in which Orwell wrote, and Big Brother feels more like Stalin than Reagan (let alone Trump). Add to that the injection of a post-dystopian far future where Winston’s diary, like Anne Frank’s, is being read by some kind of book club (still dressed like it was 1949) and I literally didn’t know where or when I was. Or, sometimes, why.
Orwell’s great ideas were there, from Big Brother is Watching You to Perpetual War, thought crime to the Ministry of Truth, and, of course, it is easy to see his vision playing out in the here and now, but whether they had more power, or surrendered more insight, in this medium or this production than the book is doubtful.
And that brings us back to Sales, Crabb and The Handmaid’s Tale, a wholly more successful, and genuinely terrifying, vision of the future. Perhaps 1984 will one day find its perfect dramatic medium. I suspect, if it does, it will be, like Margaret Atwood’s book, long-form television.
For all its sensory impact and shock value, I’m afraid this 1984, like many attempts before, was not it.  

No comments:

Post a Comment