“What is in room 101?” Indeed, a question to depict the timeless power of meta-theatrical language to prompt our imagination. George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 has developed into mandatory reading, especially in today’s climate of the harmful consequences of combining hyper-social technology with authoritarian-like power. 1984, ahead of its time, demands an innovative adaptation to exceed the ingenious and visionary mind of its author. The latest stage play delivers with a gripping audio-visual stage direction that jolts like a heart starter that is chillingly frank.
The new adaptation, currently on at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is a radical, award-winning theatrical blockbuster, under masterful direction by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, which breathes life into complicated meta-language to effectively transcend time. The direction powerfully reframes the action in a dystopian and visceral corporeality, offering a stylised bridging for modern audiences to warn us that Orwell’s dystopian future is not merely a predication, but rather provocative warning. Indeed, the current theatrical incarnation inadvertently asks: “Could this happen again?”
The stage itself is a contrary interpretation of props and costumes with television screens that omit hypnotic light in control of its subjects while enhancing the eerie mechanical silhouettes of the characters. Parallels could be drawn to Ray Bradbury’s similar cautionary tale, The Pedestrian, which was also written in late 1940s. The costumes are an odd mix of 1940s attire combined with 1980s corduroy, although the story is seemingly narrated by a futuristic 2050 book club group, making for a curious interpretation.
The audience was much amused by the shocking and blinding staccato stage lights and explosive auditory assault, holding them captive, causing sheer panic and sensory overdrive. The set production cleverly constructed with some scenes depicted in visual projections and audio reverberations of high rector-scale proportions for our entertainment, all the while provoking reflection on our own reality show voyeuristic consumption or, as Orwell would criticise, our “flawed addiction”.
“The people would not take their eyes of the screen long enough to notice” is a line in the play that, while didn’t exactly come from the pen of Orwell word for word, does sum up his own heed. And the humorous irony is certainly not lost on a modern audience. The verve of questioning societal ignorance from powerful ideas like: “ministry of truth,” “we are the dead,” and “thought police” is savoured as too many classic quotes to mention unsettle our quiet optimism of the future. “War is peace, freedom is slavery” are notions within Orwellian theory that we are doomed while subjected to twisted algorithms, be these via Facebook or Google, oh heck, the internet at large.
1984 is more powerful now: how do we defeat the totalitarian ignoramus driving our world backwards amidst threats, using fear against us, just like the “party” used torture on key character Winston?
Whether you are a teenager discovering Orwell’s work for the first time or a seasoned fan of dystopian literature, you’ll easily relate the man’s age-old warning to our own 21st Century conundrum, that advanced technology will diminish human existence to the point that we live in a state of confused contradiction of “doublethink” where we question everything. Existential themes are superbly expressed through writer Winston’s experiences of remembered time, who fights against the “party power” for freedom of thought in a time where “thought crimes” are punishable by violent death. Winston’s mind slides away into the contrary world of “doublethink” to hold simultaneously two opinions that cancelled out. He poses the social quandary “to know and not to know,” to be conscious of complete truthfulness, while telling constructed lies. (Compared to our behaviour and thoughts in the current age, who hasn’t felt paranoid about uploading personal information online, perhaps even venturing into the occasional website we sense we’re not supposed to?).
Winston meets his equal in comrade Julia who encourages him to join the underground rebellion to become tragic star-crossed lovers, against the odds under the ever-present watchful eye of ‘Big Brother’. They battle the irony that “freedom is slavery”, that the idea of individualism is a construct which the people are not afforded by the controlling authorities – much like today’s mantra from communist totalitarianism which uses media propaganda to brainwash its impoverished citizens.
As you might predict, Winston and Julia are confronted by a frightful authority in what is a devastating scene, a blow to the human spirit, where tragically the fear of power wins over the purest of human needs: love. A fitting end to a chilling dystopian tale that cautions future generations to “double think” our reliance on advanced technology, to uphold our right to privacy and, more importantly, to put humanity first. 1984 suggests we choose to live in a world lead by emotion, not numbers, and after watching this indelible play adaptation, we serve to agree.
In sum, this latest production of a timeless piece was deserved of the raucous applause it received. Annette McCubbin
‘1984’ is on at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, until August 13, 2017.
Tickets are available through www.ticketek.com.au/1984.