George Orwell’s 1984 at The Comedy Theatre

Big Brother lives

By Bradley Storer

In their adaptation of George Orwell’s classic cautionary tale of totalitarianism 1984, co-adaptors and directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan (with Australian associate director Corey McMahon) throw us instantly into questions of what is real, opening on what first appears to be the protagonist Winston Smith opening a forbidden blank writing book while the opening narration of Orwell’s text is read overhead before we are tossed into several alternative scenarios – are we watching instead an English bookclub examining the diary of Winston Smith and excavating its ambiguities? Is our ‘Winston’ merely a mentally feeble individual who has confused the book with his own identity? Frequent and craftily staged blackouts and scene changes do little to definitively answer these questions, and they drag us deep into the dark heart of Orwell’s story.

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Chloe Lamford’s intricate and layered set combines the cramped space of both an office and a typical flat as the actors pile onstage and off through various entrances, evolves handily into a movie screen for the more confined scenes in Winston and Julia’s romantic hideaway, and deconstructs completely and seamlessly into the blank, sterile holdings cell of the sinister Ministry of Love. The softer, more intimate moments are the highlights of the production, becoming cinematic closeups projected high above the stage which allow us to fully take in the characters’ mental anguish and budding romance in ways that might not otherwise have landed in this brisk, 100 minute adaptation. This becomes handily reversed in later scenes where the set is opened up into huge, harsh spaces that rub the audience’s nose in the brutality of this imagined world – Icke and Macmillan do not shy away from depicting this bloody violence onstage with gruesome detail, and on the night there were audible gasps from the audience at some of the things they saw.

Tom Conroy is incredibly compelling as Smith, the symbolic ‘everyman’ whose quiet rebellion against Big Brother is the focus of the narrative, delineating every step of Winston’s journey with precision and nuance, taking the character’s neuroticism and anxiety and making him intensely magnetic, a bundle of repressed passion and rage. Ursula Mills as Julia, the fellow party member who allies with Winston, takes her character on a huge journey – appropriately dark and mysterious to begin, morphing into a sharply seductive and cynical figure before softening into a hopeful and romantic counterpart to Winston’s bleak but optimistic intellect. As the ambiguous Inner Party aristocrat O’Brien, Terence Crawford brings a booming resonant voice and a paternal authority that is wielded to maximum effect (both benevolent and terrifying).

The ending here is layered with another level of ambiguity and horror in addition to Orwell’s original irony, and it would be a shame to spoil it here – rather, get in and see this thrilling and chilling tale given new life in this wonderful adaptation.

Venue: The Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition St, Melbourne VIC 3000

Dates: 31st May – 10th June

Times: Tues 6:30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7:30pm, Thursday 11am, Saturday 2pm

Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or at the venue

Image by Shane Reid

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