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Photo by Shane Reid

Sydney Theatre Company in association with State Theatre Company South Australia and by arrangement with GWB Entertainment and Ambassador Theatre Group presents The Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre production of 1984, by George Orwell – a New Adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay.

This play, 1984, is a new adaptation, by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, of George Orwell’s 1949 novel, NINETEEN EIGTHY-FOUR. It has been made twice into film, the last time in 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. As in ANIMAL FARM (1944), Orwell was attempting to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into a whole. To give a tangible pause to the peoples of the world coming out of a World War and attempting to caution them on how to re-calibrate the future governance of their society, so as not to repeat it all over again. Two World Wars in the one century may have been enough for Orwell, born in 1903, who also experienced the shattering political (Fascism, Communism) and economic (The Great Depression – Capitalism) events of the first half of the Twentieth Century. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR features on most lists of the World’s Greatest Novels and with recent political events (in Russia, North Korea, Syria etc and, principally, the election of Donald Trump into the American Presidency) it has become a recent Number One on the contemporary Best Seller List.

It is an odd experience watching this new adaptation of a novel that has had such an influence , even if ignored, on popular culture – there are probably few of us who have not read it, or know the gist of it, or is untouched by its paranoidal cultural referencing, its influence, whether it be in its fear filled political concepts or simple popular culture adoption of language: newspeak; thought crime; thought police; doublespeak; room 101; the brotherhood; doubleplusgood and, of course, the most famous of all: Big Brother.”Big Brother is watching You”. The ‘Orwellian’ state of Being (I wonder how many of that Reality Television audience know the origin of that program’s title?! Or, if they do, think it a cunning joke?).

The experience, in the theatre can be odd (for me, is odd) because we know what is happening, what is going to happen and how. There are no narrative surprises or suspense. We know it is a bleak, clinical observation of a man, Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, in the Ministry of Truth of a totalitarian dystopian society, who rebels against its demands, is captured, tortured and brought to heel. It is a cold war story of a government that is interested in maintaining power for those of the Inner Party. It can describe the fears, if one has any, of attitudes to our own governing powers – church, state and corporations. So, what is remarkable is the grip that this production took on the opening night audience in which I sat. For the 100 minute, no interval act of the play, there was a breath-held concentration that did not waver in its intensity and fervid commitment. Total stillness was a remarkable hallmark of that experience.

This production is a copy of the British original which has been touring around the world – Sets, Costumes et al (like the recent, THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG), but with an Australian cast of actors, Directed in Australia, by Corey McMahon. The performances of the actors, with generally impeccable English dialects and stylised physical gestures, seemingly choreographed for them, which they own as if they were their impulse, are first rate, led by Tom Conroy (Winston) and supported by Terence Crawford (O’Brien), Ursula Mills (Julia), Yalin Ozucelik (Charrington), Fiona Press (Mrs Parsons), Renato Musolino (Martin), Guy O’Grady (Syme), Paul Blackwell (Parsons) and either, Molly Barwick or Coco Jack Gilles (Child).

It is the Set Design, by Chloe Lamford, with all of its theatrical tricks/coups, highlighted by a dominating video element – live and recorded – (Richard Bell, and associate, Ian Valkeith), and intense atmospheric Lighting by Natasha Chivers, driven forward by a Sound Design, by Tom Gibbons, that captures our attention to empathise with the journey of Winston Smith. One feels the confident thrust of the Directorial conceits of this production and appreciate the professional aura of the artists at the helm of this night in the theatre. It is pretty schmick!

1984, is absorbing, if, in the end, not an entirely cathartic experience. One is ‘pleased’, like, perhaps, the denizens (translate: the Inner Party) of the Capitol in the dystopian country of Panem, located in the novels of Suzanne Collin’s THE HUNGER GAMES, might be, and like them, are not ‘moved’, cannot be ‘moved’ in our wallowing comfort, in any way. The original novel was written as a ‘warning’ of future possibilities of the governing of our society. The novel, the film and the play, this production, are hardly warnings anymore, in 2017, but are rather a re-iteration of realities that insidiously exist, nakedly, in the global corporatisation of the ‘governing’ powers that we willingly participate in today – that serve us, Inner Party members of our society, with complicit, compliant agreement. The after party in the foyer of the (for some of us) ominously named Roslyn Packer Theatre, had that strange reverberation about it – canapé? wine or beer?, as much as you can need! We were not to far from the Bangaroo complex of corporate development, I kept thinking.

1984 is good theatre making, but cumulatively, a redundant contribution to revealing our present world dilemmas.