Review - 1984: Terrifying stage production
Above: Tom Conroy as Winston Smith. Photos by Shane Reid
By George Orwell
Adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Associate dire Australia Corey McMahon
GWB Entertainment, Ambassador Theatre Group Asia Pacific and State Theatre Company of South Australia
Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Season: June 14-18, Duration 100 minutes without interval. Bookings: www.qpac.com.au or 136 246
Orwell’s book has always been chilling, but this stage production is terrifying. It is a play that churns the stomach in fear and at times, loathing. It is like a very scary reality show with crashing noises and lights that flash suddenly and glaringly across the stage in a shuddering cacophony.
And current events have made it even more prophetic than back in the 1940s. Who is at war with whom and why? Who in the world are your friends and who the enemies, and why do they appear to change so often?
Are the thought police already chasing down dissidents with data retention and more and more national security laws? And countries and governments of all persuasions are experts at spin and doublespeak. Images of Guantanamo Bay and Middle Eastern wars stretch out from the fictional Oceania as Big Brother’s “fake news” is fed through television sets to the people, who accept without challenge or deny emphatically depending which side they are on.
Orwell’s prophetic words have been cleverly emphasised so that at times they sound like a Trump tweet or sound bites from TV news broadcasts, and the horrific torture scene at the end with the deadly, softly spoken O’Brien, brilliantly played by Terence Crawford as the perfect smiling assassin, is horrifyingly real.
However, the real cleverness of this production is that it enmeshes the audience in Orwell’s world. It is set not in 1984 but much later when a group of people are studying the historic book. They meet in a dimly-lit wood-panelled room that switched from place to place, time to time with the moving of furniture or the opening of a window.
They discuss their emotions, discuss the text and then, Winston Smith, convincingly played by Tom Conroy is sucked into the world, mentally and then, suddenly, physically as time moves. People appear and disappear like magic. Winston is asked constantly: ’Where are you?” The same question applied to the audience: where the hell were we and did we really want to be there? It was perfect sliding doors as the actors changed characters in the dusky light of the stage and moved in and out of the times.
Then, when in 1984 Winston meets Julia (Ursula Mills) and they flout Big Brother’s “no sex for fun” rules in the room at the back of the antique shop, we became Big Brother. We were peering down the camera lens to the happening in the room and watching them on the big screen at the back of the stage.
Room 101 is mentioned and whether you know the meaning or not, the very sound sends shivers down the spine and the changes when Winston finally faces his greatest fear the set switched to bright lights an high featureless walls. Room 101, with its white-coated, masked set of anonymous torturers is fearsome in its bleakness.
The scenes in the dreaded room are not for the faint-hearted; nothing is spared in Winston’s humiliation and capitulation.
The rest of the cast, Paul Blackwell, Renato Musolino, Guy O’Grady, Yalin Ozucelic and Fiona Parsons were just superb and I must pass on an extra accolade to Yalin Ozucelic. I met him two days before the opening and found him an impressive and confident young man, but I found him even more impressive as the middle-aged character Charrington because I didn’t recognise him at all.
It is a production that will stay with me for a long time.