Wednesday, July 26, 2017

1984 - Canberra Theatre

Everyman Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) fights the state by writing down his thoughts
(photo: Shane Reid)

Review by John Lombard

Crushing Winston Smith shouldn't be a challenge for Big Brother. 

This young, average everyman is hardly a titanic hero or calculating plotter.  But the totalitarian state of this alternate England squanders an impressive amount of time and energy entrapping and squashing this aspirational dissident.

Surely it would have been more efficient to just shoot him in the back of the head at the first sign of facecrime?  But 1984 is not a documentary of life under totalitarianism, so much as it is a horror story that outlines the worst case scenario when an all-powerful state turns its attention to a helpless man.

This bold, theatrical production of Orwell's much-studied classic novel follows Winston's story, but tries to connect it with the modern world by inserting a kink straight out of Vonnegut: Winston finds himself randomly shunted to the future where a book group discuss the novel 1984, which just so happens to have Winston as its central character.

The modern link is an attempt to knot1984's war-footing police state with our modern society - to show that while we were all distracted by our smart phones, Orwell's nightmare became our reality.

And the play does have a point.  Ubiquitous surveillance has gone from a shocking possibility to a casual fact - even if the government isn't listening, you can be sure the Americans are.  And while our governments will swear they don't torture, we also know that we are all party to torture through the practice of the appropriately Orwellian-sounding "extraordinary rendition".

But elsewhere the parallels are less sound.  The culture of 1984 is one of control of language and information, whereas we live in world where even governments struggle to keep their secrets.  A better parallel would be the dystopia of Huxley's Brave New World, where hedonistic pleasures keep the public apathetic to the regulation of their lives.  Rather than newspeak, we have covfefe.

But Orwell's world is brilliantly compelling, to the point where you want to argue with his bleakness and fatalism.  1984 follows the logic of a horror movie, with the impossibly powerful party as un-killable as any movie monster that will always revive for a further scare.  Near the end of the play, a broken Winston is asked what could actually stop the party, and predictably the shattered Winston stumbles for a response.  Well I can give it a go: what will undo the party is the stupidity and mediocrity it fosters, and the corruption that will follow from that.

Tom Conroy plays a strikingly young Winston Smith - not Orwell's middle-aged, sickly everyman, but a dashing Romeo who pursues love and rebellion with the fervour of youth.  At one point he slips into song, and his strikingly beautiful voice is inappropriate for a character intended as more dowdy.  Fortunately Conroy is compelling in the role, and in the final harrowing scenes of the play we feel genuine anguish for him.

The novel 1984 is deeply concerned with the nature and heroism of writing, but this production manages to add something to that by pulling in moments of impressive physical theatre.  One scene is repeated several times with a few key changes, a stock theatrical trick that works extremely well to emphasise a sinister and memorable beat in the story.  The use of live video footage is also excellent, a constant reminder that the characters are always being watched, and deployed extremely effectively in one particular plot twist.  The staging is both excellent and creative, with what at first seems an inappropriately sedate set yielding a series of welcome surprises.

Where the play feels clunky, the fault is Orwell's - some striking passages are lifted nearly verbatim from the book, but played on stage feel mannered.  The final sequence, which involves graphic and upsetting depiction of torture, loses momentum because the characters take just a bit too long to pontificate.  The final chill is also a bit anti-climactic - used exactly as it is in the book, but a weak follow-up to the sequences that preceded it.

This production of 1984 sets out to have something for both experts in the book and newcomers, and it succeeds unequivocally.  It tries to reach for more relevance than it actually has, but is a brilliant and successful adaptation that engages deeply with the themes of the book, and even has the moxie to build in new directions.  A perfect example of what theatre can add to a book that has been so over-studied that it should not feel as fresh and surprising as this production does.