1984, Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia by arrangement with GWB Entertainment and Ambassador Theatre Group presents the Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre production at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, 29 June-22 July 2017. Photography by Shane Reid - above and below – the company
This nationally touring show arrived in Sydney complete with solicitous health warnings (you might find it a bit much) and news items about how it has affected some audience members elsewhere (fainting, vomiting and having the horrors). Tricky things to live up – or down – to, but the first thing that needs to be said is that, surely, to react in such a way you first need to be emotionally engaged; invested in the drama to a degree that was impossible – for me – to see in this production.
It’s a new adaptation “created and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan” of George Orwell’s awfully prescient vision from 1949 of the ultimate dystopia. However, it’s neither the book nor a theatre work freed from the book, but somewhere in between; a classic curate’s egg. It was first seen, with English cast, at the 2015 Melbourne Festival. For this Australian national tour – with an Australian cast – it has been revived by Adelaide-based associate director Corey McMahon. And the casting is off.
As already said, if one isn’t involved and engaged by 1984, one is either a sociopath or there’s something awry on stage and in this instance, it starts from the central characters: Winston Smith and his lover, Julia. In the boyish form of Tom Conroy, Winston is not convincing as the disillusioned, worldweary bureaucrat. And neither credible nor comprehensible is the chilly and detached Julia as voiced by Ursula Mills. So, with an emotional vacuum at its heart, credibility and involvement is difficult to generate or maintain.
The rest of the cast revolve around this black hole like sparkling planets of meaning and understanding. In particular, Paul Blackwell and Fiona Press as variously depressed and depressing minor apparatchiks and especially Terence Crawford as major operative and villain, O’Brien in a reading of the character that has a strong and satisfying whiff of David Thewlis in Wonderwoman.
Nevertheless, condensing a richly imagined and written 300+ page novel into 100 minutes has to mean something’s got to give. What gives here is the blood and warmth of genuinely human characters – despite or perhaps because of copious amounts of ridiculously bright red stuff in “the torture scene”. That valuable stage time is given over to a sort of book club study of Winston’s fatal journal is irritating when another element of invention – the repetition and building of a sequence of events in the cafeteria – is so clever.
In the absence of engrossing flesh and blood protagonists, the excitement, such as it is, is generated by the design, sound and lighting. A boxed and ceilinged set of opaque glass, dreary wood panelling and deal furniture conjure up the achromatic world of clerks, supervisors, admin and jargon. When it becomes clinical, dazzling white – Room 101, the torture chamber – the contradiction is stark.
When Winston and Julia escape to their apparently secret love nest of pictures, drapes, quilt, cushions and colour, it’s seen via various cameras and works well in the Big Brother, snooping sense. But it’s bleached out and blurry on the angled overhead screen and loses impact as the sanctuary of vividness in an otherwise bleak world.
In essence, the visualisation lacks the idea of truth, love and beauty – all missing in the then future world – and is replaced by a contemporary and conventional set of tropes: big noises, scary black outs, frighty lighting and cartoonish acts of torture more in keeping with Tom and Jerry than a totalitarian dictatorship. (Set design: Chloe Lamford, sound design: Tom Gibbons; lighting: Natasha Chivers.) Frankly, if you faint or vomit you need to read the daily news more often or just get out more.
Given that the novel is so much more than popular memory of the mundane horror of the triumph of bureaucracy – with North Korea as its zenith and nadir all wrapped in one, never mind the sick joke of Trumpian newspeak – it’s impossible to not think about what happened, in translation to stage, to the core: the aforementioned idea of truth, love and beauty? And in its failings this 1984 made me think of the brilliant, saturated visuals of Kip Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer and the intelligent and thrilling reinvention of that play and its re-visions of truth, love and beauty, for what might have been. A taster and memory jogger is available here: https://youtu.be/VnxecSbMJTk
This Sydney season of 1984 is already sold out but according to the STC website, “There is a limited amount of restricted view Box Seats for sale by phone only – (02) 9250 1777. Box Seats have an impeded view of the stage”.