1984 is a confronting and supercharged production

The controversial production ‘1984‘ based on George Orwell’s classic novel, has arrived at Auckland’s ASB Waterfront Theatre for a run during Auckland Arts Festival. Although I wouldn’t say it was ‘vomit inducing‘, it is certainly not an easy watch as the themes of the source text dictate the confrontation of a frightening superstate of surveillance and control. This production has been adapted and directed by playwrights Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan and they’ve certainly not held back in their ambitions to display a unique and unsettling piece of theatre.

With today’s media having to deal with the terms ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ it’s understandable why Orwell’s classic feels so relevant in today’s political climate. ‘Newspeak’ and ‘Thought Police’ don’t seem so unfathomable and the rebellious ‘minority of one’ certainly feels like a relevant tale to tell right now.

Winston Smith lives in the totalitarian and dystopian Oceania. ‘Big Brother’ and ‘The Party’ rules through control, fear, and never-ending wars; wars that have enemies that are interchangeable as history is continuously rewritten, the past forever changing to fit with the present agenda. And that’s where Winston comes in – his job is to ensure the ‘Ministry of Truth’ displays whatever the current ‘truth’ is with any reference to any alternative eradicated. This includes erasing from existence any specific individuals who are condemned to be ‘unpersoned’. ‘The constant presence of ‘Telescreens’ tell everyone the state of the nation, informs them that ‘Big Brother is watching’ and ensures they stay fearful, ignorant and obedient. Winson, however, falls in love with Julia and maybe their love is the answer for the future and destruction of The Party and Big Brother?

Throughout the performance the sound is especially and deliberately confronting putting the audience in the same state as Winston himself – a feeling of unrest with a looming sinister undertone accompanying the uncertainty of where things will take us next. The staging is epic, a seemingly basic set upon first appearances but it quickly reveals itself to becomes a mismatch of bland old school conformity and technology by using a huge screen to project all manner of imagery above the stage. It displays some of the text’s most iconic slogans ‘Freedom is slavery’ ‘Ignorance is strength’ and ‘War is peace’ as well as being cleverly used to let us survey Winston and Julia in their ‘private’ rented room; a hideaway and ‘the only place the past still exists’. The deconstruction of this particular part of Winton’s world during the final third of the play is particularly striking.

The narrative can be challenging to follow compared to how it’s presented in the book. I think the subtlety of how Winston and Julia meet is lost as well as the overall impression that Winston himself was outwardly very obedient. Instead, we see his rebellious side acted out (rather than in his head). In fact, we see later that this is his confused and dreamlike state which is making his actions and indeed whereabouts so abstract throughout. Tom Conroy plays the panicked Winston with increasing mania culminating in a devastating and intense destruction of self. I found him to be captivating in his desperation and realistic portrayal of distress. Rose Riley complements this performance as she plays Winston’s partner in ‘thoughtcrime’, Julia. She’s the picture perfect party conformist until her lust and insubordination are revealed and she can reflect the mirror opposite of what the regime dictates.  Bill Allert as Martin is conformity personified and is both disturbing and almost comical in his rigid compliance. Once paired with the equally sinister O’Brien his ‘evil henchman’ persona is complete.

The climax of the play is where it gets pretty hardcore and is definitely not for the faint-hearted or squeamish among you. This is where Icke and MacMillan have chosen to push the audience – right into the gripping jaws of ‘Big Brother’ and the dreaded ‘Room 101’. If you’ve read the book you’ll know what’s coming, if you haven’t you’ll find out in a graphic theatrical presentation of mind control and torture. It’s something that you’d be more accustomed to seeing within an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ than on the stage, but it’s very well executed and performed with creepy excellence by Terrance Crawford as O’Brien. All you really need now is a child singing an eerie rhyme – oh wait yep they’ve got that too in local talent Madeleine Walker and Tia Ormsby who will be alternating their role.

1984 will not be to everyone’s taste but this 70-year-old novel has been supercharged with this modern theatrical production to present a confronting, uniquely sensory and disturbingly beguiling story.

Reviewed by Ingrid Grenar.

Photo Credit – Andi Crown.

1984 is on at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 25 March as part of Auckland Arts Festival.