Some books never leave you. Even though you are forced to read them at school, they stay with you for the rest of your life. If they then get turned into a TV show, film or play, then they have a real uphill struggle trying to get over your original thoughts on reading the book. A case in point is George Orwell’s 1984 which has been adapted to every medium short of musical theatre – that’s isn’t a challenge – and I’ve seen the lot. Today, I added to my list with a visit to TheatroTechnis in Camden.
It is 1984 and London is the capital city of Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain) of Oceania, one of the three great powers in the world. Following a revolution years before, Oceania is ruled by the omnipresent Party and the principles of Ingsoc (English Socialism). There are three strata to life in Oceania – the Inner Party, the Outer Party and The Proles. Party members are expected, no they conditioned to give themselves, body mind and soul to The Party and its leader, Big Brother, the never seen titan that protects and rules them with a fist of iron. In the Ministry of Truth, Outer Party member Winston Smith (Paul Graves) is working hard ‘correcting mistakes’ in newspapers where the past doesn’t necessarily agree with the reality of the present. Smith is good at his job and can correctly put the record straight wherever it is ‘wrong’. From altering crop yield forecasts so that it looks as if they have been exceeded, to amending speeches about the war. Oceania is at war with Eurasia, Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, and Smith ensures the record always reflects that. But Smith has a secret, he has started to keep a diary and to have thoughts that The Party would consider heretical at best. Smith is not alone though. Despite the illegality of it, he starts a relationship with Julia (Chloe Ledger) and believes he has an ally in Inner Party member O’Brien (Martin South). Whilst Smith is a pessimist, knowing the futility of his little rebellions, just maybe, he along with others that secretly think like him could be the catalyst required to overthrow the regime and restore freedom and democracy to Oceania and its people.
I realise there are people out there who haven’t read 1984 and for them, I will say this is a really good production with a better second half than first. Now stop reading.
Everyone else that knows 1984 in one form or another carry on from here. The original novel by George Orwell published in 1949 and paints a picture of a dystopian future where the world is controlled by three totalitarian regimes constantly fighting each other in order to keep their populations under control. The scary thing about the book is how much has now come to pass. Draconian restrictive laws passed as part of the ongoing ‘war against terror’, permanent surveillance, on London buses, for example, there are usually 15 CCTV cameras constantly recording, and Guantanamo Bay, where people disappear for years at a time then eventually emerge when they have been ‘interrogated’ – Miniluv anyone? Heck, we’ve even got televisions that monitor our movements. However, after a first reading of the book, there is a problem with the text. It is basically split into two sections. A long part that is mainly in the first person and records Smith’s increasing dissatisfaction with the regime and culminating with – seriously if you don’t know the story, stop reading this now – his and Julia’s arrest. This leads to the second section, Smith’s time in the ministry of Love. The issue for me is that the first part is actually not that exciting. Orwell quickly establishes Smith’s life in Airstrip One. He then brings in Winston’s relationships with Julia and O’Brien but in reality, not that much happens. The second section is much stronger both in story and writing and is definitely the more fascinating part of the book.
Having said that, the Tower Theatre Company under Director Angharad Ormond have put together a really good version of 1984 which takes the audience into the world of Airstrip One from the moment they arrive to be greeted by boiler suit wearing comrades, tannoy announcements and the ubiquitous “Big Brother is Watching You” poster which seems to be everywhere. This carries on inside and right up until you take your seat. The overall production works really well and, Act II, in particular, is horribly absorbing to the point where during the Room 101 scene I wanted to look away but couldn’t move my eyes from the events going on in front of me. The technical side of the production is exceptional with Michael Bettell and Max Batty’s set, Sam Jones costumes, Colin Guthrie’s sound, Rob Irvine’s lighting and the video design of Max Batty all creating a realistic Airstrip One for the sixteen-strong cast to inhabit.
Among the actors, all three principles were nicely done. Paul Graves’ Winston is a real everyman in appearance and, although he seemed slightly young looking, considering Smith’s age in the book, he really pulled off every aspect of Smith’s character and experiences successfully. Paul is at his best in the scenes with Martin South as O’Brien. Martin is perfect as O’Brien. Tall, imposing, urbane, and utterly terrifying in his logic. His explanations for ‘wishing to ‘cure’ Smith are delivered with a wonderful sense of explaining something simple to someone not very bright but who you are trying to help.
All in all, this production of 1984 really delivers. Whilst the first act seems a trifle long, the production is totally saved by the intensity and believability of Act II the scenes of which are still with me as I write this. Highly recommended.
Review by Terry Eastham
April 1984. Under constant surveillance and the watchful eye of Big Brother, Winston Smith rewrites history for The Ministry of Truth. Individuality and free thought are prohibited but Winston privately rebels against the regime and starts a secret love affair with a dark-haired girl. Can they bring down the party and can love ever conquer?
1984 by George Orwell
adapted by Matthew Dunster
Directed by Angharad Ormond
Wednesday 28th February to Saturday 3rd March and Tuesday 6th to Saturday 10th March 2018
Theatro Technis, Camden Town