BWW Review: 1984 at Her Majesty's Theatre

BWW Review: 1984 at Her Majesty's TheatreReviewed by Barry Lenny, Tuesday 16th May 2017

The State Theatre Company of South Australia is presenting the Robert Icke And Duncan Macmillan
2013 adaptation of English author George Orwell's dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the title being generally reduced to 1984, written in 1949, the year before he died. The other great novel of this type is, of course, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published in 1932 and set in 2540, with which comparisons are often made. There are plenty of others on related themes, such as Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. At the time of writing, it was Orwell's reaction to the rise of Fascism but, as we look at the governments of Australia, the United Kingdom, America, and others, we see much of what Orwell was warning is about. As it has been said, 1984 was supposed to be a warning, not a guide. Newspeak encompasses "alternative facts", formerly known as blatant lies, we now have the concept of good and bad government debt and, as for surveillance, our Australian government is now collecting all of our metadata in an effort to keep across everything that we do when using electronic communications. An analysis of current world governments, checking them against the characteristics of Fascism, could fill volumes, but this is a theatre review and so, for the time being, enough said.

Great Britain has been renamed Airstrip One, a province of Oceania; Eurasia and Eastasia being the other two superstates. A state of war between these three, over the few remaining territories not already absorbed into one of them, is a permanent condition. English Socialism, Ingsoc, is The Party that rules Oceania, with Big Brother as its leader. Newspeak is replacing Oldspeak, or English as we know it. The reduction in language renders it virtually impossible to write negatively about the government. Telescreens, two-way televisions, are everywhere, including in every room in people's homes. Big Brother is watching you!

Winston Smith, Comrade 6079, is a member of the Outer Party and works as an editor in the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue in Newspeak. The Minitrue motto, emblazoned on their building, is "Ignorance is Strength". His job is to constantly rewrite history, as dictated by the Inner Party, the top 2% of the ruling group. The Outer Party, to which he belongs, makes up the next 13%, the remainder being the proletariat, or proles.

On the 4th April 1984, with the clocks striking thirteen, Winston Smith opens a notebook and writes the date, although he admits to himself that he has no idea if it is the real date because of the constant rewriting of history. He begins to keep a diary, which is, naturally, forbidden. Julia, whom he hates, hands him a not confessing her love and they begin meeting to have sex, renting a room that has no telescreen, over an antique shop. She, too, is against the Party.

Winston is approached by O'Brien, an Inner Party member who claims to be with The Brotherhood, an organisation opposed to the government. It is a sting operation and he turns out to be with the Thought Police. Winston is taken to the Ministry of Love, Miniluv, for interrogation and torture, ending up in the dreaded Room 101. There is no happy ending.

In the play, a group of people have the diary and are discussing, analysing, and trying to understand all of the implications of Winston's writing. The story of Winston Smith's life in 1984 is told in flashbacks, triggered by what the group, now a century later, read in his diary.

The three central characters, Winston Smith, O'Brien, and Julia, are played respectively by Tom Conroy, Terence Crawford, and Ursula Mills. Conroy, who is on stage from start to finish, gives a performance that is a tour de force, a term that I seldom use as it is so rarely warranted. In this case, it is extremely well-deserved. Many very quiet theatregoers left the auditorium, the power and darkness of the play and the authenticity of Conway's Winston throwing them into a stunned silence. There were grave expressions on the majority of faces, so moved were patrons both by the production and, no doubt, by recognition of Orwell's vision in our current world.

Crawford's portrayal of O'Brien is of paramount importance, any hint of sadism obscured by his cold, calculating interrogation and infliction of physical torture in his adherence to the ideals of the Inner Party. Crawford's demeanour as O'Brien could be that of an accountant, discussing tax minimisation with a client, so devoid is it of emotion. That portrayal is more terrifying than if he had presented a heavy-handed approach. His matter of fact persona, just doing his job, is superb.

This gives a catalyst for Winston's terror that Conroy embraces, and transmits to the audience who feel every bit of pain that Winston experiences. This is no mean feat.

Mills initially presents a prim and proper Julia, studiously going about her work, maintaining the novel-writing machines at the Ministry of Truth. She appears to look down on Winston and other workers, but there is more to her than meets the eye. Mills suddenly releases Julia's inner passion, quickly passing her love note to Winston, the beginning of their physically active affair.

This is another occasion that has a profound effect on Winston, and Conroy explores this lowering of his normal caution, having found a soulmate in his hatred of Big Brother. Mills treads a fine line in another very believable performance and leaves us, at the end of the play, still wondering whether or not she was in league with O'Brien, or was simply what she seemed to be to Winston.

There are highly convincing performances from the remainder of the cast in the minor roles: Paul Blackwell as Parsons, Renato Musolino as Martin, Guy O'Grady as Syme, Yalin Ozucelik as Charrington, and Fiona Press as Mrs. Parsons and the set, lighting, visuals, and sound all add dramatic elements to the narrative. It is also a very physical production, a minimal amount of text being extracted from the book, enough to tell a story.

This is a very moving production, highly thought-provoking, and challenging. Nobody will leave the theatre unaffected, and it will be a long time before people stop talking about this production. Be sure that you are one of those who gets to see it.


"Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth."

"He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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