1984 - Review by Simon Jenner

Matthew Dunster’s elegant compression of George Orwell’s 1949 1984 is brought vividly to life in this outstanding new production at New Venture Theatre’s Upstairs or retitled Main house. There’s a post-interval surprise though, one of several, in Nick Richards’ commanding production. It’s a play offering a terrible agency on the seventy-years’ vision, an ultimate negation of humanity.

In a work where the very date – long passed but not a bit passé -still encapsulates everything about total state control, we bring our own fears. That’s what its about. And fear is what Orwell wanted to incite. Novelist C. P. Snow wrongly thought it an attack on socialism and called it ‘cheek’. But as Martin Seymour-Smith added: ‘It will take more than Snow’s monumental ‘cheek’ to dispel its power. It’s just possible that Orwell’s book has prevented the very events described in the novel.’

Richards also designs the set with Nathan Ritson deploying numerous props and Simon Glazier leading the construction team. This really merits description. Screened walls on casters flank off various tableaux, the main one being Ingsoc HQ, the Ministry of Truth whose job it is to rewrite history and reduce the number of words in the language. There’s a distressed ancient interior above a junk antique shop, and open market as well as shady sidlings off; and at one point through Alex Gooch’s tele-screen videos a dappling of countryside to Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending. Later, a striking black and white-floor painted prison cell with angled cut-offs, hosts a bare metal-framed bed with implements of electronic torture and a wheel-chaired contraption allowing a box with a funnel attachment. The detail’s remarkably sustained throughout.

Logos designed in red and black by Dan Kaufmann and Jezz Bowden range from central icon to delicate details such as Victory Gin. Maise Wilkins’ uniform clothing reinforces the red/black motif, with boiler suits, one with a red sash for the Anti-Sex League, proles’ high-viz and a sudden dress).

Jezz Bowden’s sound and visuals are crucial to crafting claustrophobia. Paul Tripp and Sophie Dearlove work as tele-screen announcers but Tripp’s also the hated Goldstein, that bogey-figure designed to keep notions of the enemy ever-fixated. Lisa Shabbas starts the hero Winston Smith’s day as a fitness instructor too. the whole’s lit by Strat Mastoris making striking use of the artificial days and nights, particularly in the latter half.

The story’s so well-known its etched on most peoples’ consciousness. Richards’ production though gives it full force to anyone coming fresh to its horrors, and lets virtually no salient detail pass unchecked. Dunster’s script elegantly reproduces nearly all the quotes. ‘The object of power is power, of torture torture’ is deleted before the great pay-off. And the Old Prole’s memories aren’t extended to the funeral of his sister. These are tiny things that might have been included but this is Dunster’s text.

What does Richards do for those of us with at least a passing acquaintance with the novel? How does he evoke the ever-living entity that governs Oceania, which absorbs Britain, one of three world states perpetually at war with one of the others, though this shifts? And the time frame, after a nuclear war brought this globally about? Shrewdly Richards avoids images of Big Brother – except cheekily in profile on the programme’s front cover, where in Ulricke Schilling’s design a rather well-known world leader profile darkens counsel.

First he produces a visceral tableau where Scott Roberts’ Winston Smith is peripheral, emerging almost unnoticed oblique and silent to the mob indulging in the obligatory Two Minutes’ Hate, and it’s here too the last scene in the play, an neat analogue to more interiorised events.

Roberts is commandingly quiet. His hesitant picking through the day pays dividends: where the over-enthusiastic Syme (James Macauley) tries to show him the elegance of reducing all good/bad tropes to the variants on good, and is arrested for thought crime; where Jonathan Howlett’s blokey unthinking Parsons enthuses on his children’s acuity in denouncing stray people (you can see where this heads); to the amenable old shop owner Charrington, Andy Grant’s reasonable persona; Bryony Weaver’s truculent Old Prole, a neat gender change in a rather male-dominated narrative. Another is a contrast in the prole Prostitute played by Beatrice Cupido, almost a mute role, taken with attitude.

What Roberts’ Winston doesn’t predict in his secret diary damnations of Big Brother, is a rather smug-faced young woman he despises as so embodying the Anti-Sex League sash she wears. Julia, Charlotte Anne Atkinson’s quick-witted hard-faced and then joyously amorous character as she passes Winston a note. ‘I love you.’ Later Winston’s anxious that Julia’s desire for sex isn’t just rebelliousness. It isn’t. ‘I adore it’ she assures him, and Atkinson’s warmth convinces us her Julia’s fundamentally passionate, personally driven.

They meet in a circuitous fashion and consummate their relationship furtively in countryside a few times before Winston suggests the junk shop in the old quarter, with the old bedroom above, facilitated by the ever-obliging Charrington. There’s a picture of St Clement Danes too, and he and Winston remember snatches of the old rhyme Ruins of churches converted to other uses litter the place still just known as London.

Julia remembers more. Atkinson combines a rapid sense of their true state with a pragmatic disinterst in politics. she reviles the state, but wants to snatch joy before she’s caught, which they both feel is inevitable. Atkinson captures Julia’s impatience, her rebellious fire, decisive courage – and occasional terror. She also glows with her desire to show her femininity, bringing banned make-up and a dress. ‘You’re only a rebel from the waist down’ Winston tells her.

O’Brien who meets Winston in the corridor and invites him and Julia (though they shouldn’t have come together) remembers still more. This is the resistance, the shadowy Brotherhood with no network but an underground mushroom connectedness. Jim Calderwood’s soft-voiced infinitely patient, authoritative O’Brien refuses the hard glint or Richard Burton’s portrayal. He comes across as paternal. Cai Jones his assistant Martin invests his small role as a smilingly eager technocrat.

What happens if you don’t know this, will be something to discover. Were confined to a single set now, not shifting. Roberts gives the performance of his life as a man tortured by someone he’d trusted, and there’s a procession of actors which breaks the duologue: Syme, Parsons, and Sam de Costobadie as the luckless prisoner Bumstead (and barman earlier) and Rebecca Kerr as a vision of Winston’s mother as well as a strikingly panicky prisoner about to be led off to Room 101. All these vignettes are well taken, some like Kerr having no chance to shine before excelling themselves. Macauley’s syme maanges to evoke PTSD repeating conversations he used to have with Winston. Howlett’s conversation with Roberts is infinitely affecting, full of pathos as the befuddled Parsons; one thinks of Dobbin from Animal Farm. The trusting and outwardly loyal aren’t safe.

Its Roberts’ muteness and strangled responses that strike one, even down to the induced vomiting. Physical acting in the second half is brutal and believable. The torture bed and Roberts’ responses to ever-patient inquisition recall the rack and Jesuits, and show fundamentally similar people applying the screws. Winston though has one frayed trick up his torn sleeve. He doesn’t mind being a minority of one, the definition of madness. He doesn’t finally resist the two plus two equals five – a stunning piece of acting from him and Calderwood. The patient unpeeling of a soul is presented in a way that wouldn’t have looked amiss in the Almeida where this was first staged.

An epilogue with the two old lovers again strikes by its detailed hesitancy, its restraint as Roberts and Atkinson negotiate changed circumstances.

Roberts has excelled before as Haimon in last October’s Antigone, as well as in Holes. But this evinces much of his full range, and is a commanding tour-de-force, one of the greatest performances I’ve seen at NVT, and there have been two or three recently. Atkinson especially and Calderwood too turn in superb foils to Roberts, but the eleven-strong cast generally is exemplary. Richards has drawn this together through direction and set with consummate skill. If you can catch this in the Fringe, you’ll have seen one of the best things in it.

Review by Simon Jenner - First published - fringereview.co.uk