In a society that feels constantly under the microscope, both protected and oppressed by the glare of CCTV cameras, it is not surprising that George Orwell’s grim dystopian vision continues to hold a privileged place in the popular imagination. Opening on a scene littered with scantily-clad bodies under the stare of a huge blinking eye, however, EpathEyes new version of this totalitarian nightmare immediately sets itself strikingly apart.
Working from Matthew Dunster’s graceful adaptation, this production returns the visceral, horrifying edge to the familiar story of everyman Winston Smith and his rebellion against the Party and its omniscient figurehead Big Brother. Sinister feels like an understatement for the menace that creeps insidiously through the veins of this piece, a slow-working poison composed of haunting songs, discordant notes and ghost-like figures in gas masks.
Although the performances from the ensemble cast are a little uneven, Tahsin Tarzan Gemikonakli and Imogen Lewis’ direction successfully injects a hyperreal, at times robotic physicality into the world of Oceania. Each mention of Big Brother prompts an automatic, fevered glance to the telescreen, while the fiercely indoctrinated two minute hate erupts into a grotesque outpour of heightened anger, all convulsing bodies and outstretched fists.
Visually, this muscular staging is a thing of nightmarish beauty. In the spirit of surveillance that pervades Orwell’s novel, EmpathEyes’ production has a decidedly cinematic quality, channelling the taut imagery of the thriller at the same time as the vividly sketched aesthetic of the graphic novel. Scenes rapidly cut away and intersect, while a screen at the back of the stage hosts projected film sequences.
This screen is also a window for the perpetually watchful gaze of Big Brother, realised in this production as a blinking, delicate, demonstrably human eye. No brutal monstrosity, this rendering seems to hint at the potential for evil and corruption in us all; Big Brother might well only be a symbol, but he is an inescapably human one. Goldstein, leader of the mythologised resistance movement, states that “more than machinery we need humanity”. But what if this is where humanity leads to?
**** – 4/5 stars
1984 played at The Zoo as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.