When I was a teenager, I saw a local production of George Orwell’s Animal Farm – an experience which in many ways helped prepare me for seeing the George Orwell’s classic 1984. Orwell’s key political insights are not something that would be associated with being translatable onto the stage, and yet this play manages to do so very well. That being said, aside from possibly reading up on the Khmer Rouge or North Korea (or the book itself), there is very little that can prepare you for this play. Updated for the modern world, this play is terrifying and enlightening in equal measure, and is definitely something worth seeing.
You will leave the play with a new appreciation for Orwell’s work, and, ideally, the world we live in.
The play, created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, really hammers home the psychological nature of the story. What is real and true as opposed to fiction, how fear truly warps the individual, rebellion, love, insanity, and the nature of totalitarianism are all explored in detail, and the audience is often left wondering how much of the play is “real” and how much is simply the fevered imaginings of a broken man. Tom Conroy plays a rather Orwell-like Winston Smith (all anxiety and mildly egotistical), and has a fantastic stage relationship with Ursula Mills (Julia), whilst Terence Crawford portrays the slightly sinister yet oddly banal O’Brien in a wonderful way that will leave you feeling creeped out.
Icke and Macmillan have also managed to convey the core philosophy of the original story really well, and so little is lost in the translation that it really is quite something.
There is no need to reiterate the plot here, suffice to say that they stayed true to the plot of the book very well (there were some aspects which weren’t included, but that was more due to the nature of the stage as against the nature of a book). There was however a very interesting “prologue” and “epilogue” to the play that was not in the book. Although these bookends to the play may simply be part of Smith’s delusions (as is hinted at parts of the dialogue), they could also be characters looking back. They certainly act as a stand-in for the audience regardless, and there is plenty of meta-discussion about what “the book” actually means and how it impacts our lives. This was a highly effective mechanism to introduce the play, as well as give it a far more psychological edge.
As an aside, all the great quotes and phrases from the book make an appearance. “Newspeak”, “rebel from the waist down”, “double think”, and everything else all appear, and really give them meaning and a human touch that can sometimes be missing from a book.
What made the play really stand out however was the use of special effects and lights. A television screen was used to view small details (such as writing in a book), or to catch action happening “offscreen”. The style of film gave these scenes a very human and “old-school” feel, as well as really emphasised the “being watched” nature of the play. But that was the least engaging element of the play. The bright lights and loud noises that periodically hit the audience throughout the play left the audience feeling disorientated – which combined with the effective use of rapid stage changes make the audience feel uncomfortable and on edge.
And nowhere has there been a more realistic torture scene onstage. The Ministry of Love scenes are really something else entirely, and manage to convey that feeling of insanity and broken reality effectively.
Overall, a strong play, and definitely something that should be seen if you get the chance. Even if you haven’t read the book, you will appreciate the play for its technical brilliance and strong themes, which, in this world of political instability and “post-truths”, I think we all need.
After hugely successful West End seasons, 1984 is currently touring Australia. It’s on at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne until 10 June. Tickets are available online and at the Comedy Theatre box office. After that it heads to Sydney, Canberra and Perth. For more information and tickets to shows in the other major cities, head to the 1984 website.