From a projection on the backdrop, a blinking eye surveys us. Ingeniously positioned speakers fire instructions at the audience from every angle before music so heavy with bass it’s barely audible causes the auditorium to throb. As we file into the theatre, moving in right angles and straight lines as we find our row and seat, figures on the stage move with a similar mechanical deliberation. As far as audience and performers are concerned, Big Brother is watching us.
The incorporation of the audience into Orwell’s dystopian nightmare is the biggest strength of UCLU Drama’s take on 1984 and, in making such creative decisions, production managers Rosie Banister and Zee Zaw have shown great imagination and flair. In a piece where the majority of the pivotal emotional moments are depicted through video, multimedia designer Will Otterburn should also be credited. There are charged montages designed to provoke viewers both on- and off-stage, romanticised video clips that illustrate the power of memory, instant playbacks of scenes to reiterate the omnipresent surveillance, and animated close-ups of rats that are so threatening it’s not just Winston who feels he is in Room 101 here. In this piece, the real drive lies in moving image.
It’s a real shame, then, that such emotion is absent from the live performance. The start is promising: between repetitive, automated instructions, the cast make rhythmic journeys across the stage. Each movement made by actors dressed in dark boiler suits and drab, homogeneous make-up is mechanical, fitting in well with the electronic, rhythmic beeps they utter. Anyone who has read 1984 should know that this mindlessness is all part of the nightmare, but as the production skims over the characters’ memories and relationships, the contrast that drives Orwell’s text is lost and the true impact of this disturbing mass obedience is far from apparent.
The power of Orwell’s novel hinges on the transformation of the flawed but human Winston Smith. Unfortunately, this adaptation has completely failed to flesh out the lead character, as Robert Owens, Wilton Hall and William Miles’s script omits the entirity of Winston’s back-history and, most significantly, his personality. The scripted adaptation also skims over parts of the text where Winston develops through time alone, in solitary rebellion against his observers. While Theo Gordon makes an admirable stab at portraying this lead, he fails to breathe life into such a thinly shaded character. What’s left are uttered lines sounding like they’ve fallen from the mouth of an actor, so that as Winston begins to speak lines scripted by Big Brother a lack of contrast means these disingenuous words also fall flat.
With an inventive, conceptual use of multimedia and an unsettling positioning of its audience, this production gives us plenty to think about. Sadly, this boldness is unmatched in the live performance, meaning the cruelty of The Party’s changes are barely felt. In the insightful words of Winston’s antagonist, O’Brien, “Intellectually there is very little wrong with you. It is only emotionally that you have failed to make progress.”