1984 – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

MANCHESTER Mouth community reporter Sadia Habib reviews Matthew Dunster’s adaptation of ‘1984’ – The Royal Exchange Theatre.

George Orwell’s political masterpiece 1984 still holds great resonance with a contemporary audience: the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent Big Brother brings to the forefront current debates about CCTV surveillance, identity cards and governments holding sensitive data on their citizens.  The dramatic scenes of torture in the production also remind the audience of uncomfortable news coverage of similar painful humiliations at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.

Sayings like Big Brother and Room 101 have become familiar language for today’s audience with their own connotations in mainstream popular culture.  However, in the play these watered-down terms, and others such as Newspeak, Thought Crime and Doublespeak, have dangerous consequences of mind control in a dystopian and dangerous world.

The opening of the play successfully establishes the persistent and pernicious interruption of thoughts through the telescreen device: the monotone, almost malicious drone of the Party’s indoctrinating words linger in the minds of the audience, reflecting the lack of privacy in the minds of the residents of Oceania, Orwell’s dystopian world.  The props of the telescreens are used effectively throughout the play to highlight an intermittent penetration of peace of mind.

The fleeting moments of pleasure experienced by Winston Smith (Jonathan McGuinness), the main protagonist of Orwell’s novel, when he witnesses the proles and their simple pleasures, and in his stunningly passionate union with another Outer Party member, Julia (Caroline Bartleet), bring some light in an otherwise very dark play.  The production also manifests the mindsets and lifestyles of the proles through use of music and laughter, a stark contrast to the bleakness that pervades Winston’s life.

Winston’s quiet desperation is evident on McGuiness’s face as he seeks to learn the end of the rhyme:  “Oranges and lemons/Say the bells of St. Clements/I owe you five farthings/Say the bells of St. Martins…”. And the audience, share the joy as he bonds with others through this rhyme. The prop of the picture of the church hanging over the bed above the junk shop is cohesive with the rhyme and powerfully depicts the past times Winston is aching to hold on to.

This production of 1984 ensures that the long speeches in the novel have maximim dramatic impact and are accessible to the audience. The complexity of the political concepts are elaborated upon through the use of actors representing the three factions of Oceanic society: the Inner Party, the Outer Party and the proles.  The audience, therefore, are able to engage with abstract notions without the play being overly-intellectual.

We are reminded about control of the body reinforcing control of the mind – Winston writes his private thoughts in a tiny alcove behind the telescreen, and each morning he is made to participate in a tedious and tiring exercise regime in front of the telescreen.  However, this production cleverly highlights the nature of body control through the disturbing scenes of devastating torture.  The production places emphasis on physicality furthermore by showing us the stunning scenes of love between Winston and Julia as moments that are rebellious, beautiful and hopeful.

Dunster’s adaptation remains very faithful to the original text, whilst creating a very modern debate about how elements of the Orwellian vision ring true today.  In the language of Oceania, a doubleplusgood production.

1984 is playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 27 March 2010.