Big Bro is Back! 1984 Play Review
Last week I took my mother and aunt out to see 1984. No, not the book, which they’d probably seen already, and not even the apparently awful movie. We went to see the play, which was created by the Shake & Stir theatre company and is currently on National Tour.
I say Mum must have seen the book before. I mean surely, if you haven’t read 1984, you’ve at least heard of it, right? But something tipped me off in the ready way she agreed to go with me and her habit of calling it “1986”, that perhaps she wasn’t too familiar with George Orwell’s last and most infamous work. I suspect, actually, that she thought it was going to be something like the ABBA musical.
Thank floop it was nothing like that.
What it was, was … wow. 1984 opened with the Two Minute Hate. A huge burst of noise and a low level chanting, “Big Brother, Big Brother, Big Brother!” the audience already captivated as images flickered across the bank of screens, soldiers marching, bombs being dropped, images in vivid orange and black. The five people on stage seated in small chairs, engrossed in the hate. One shouted, one raised a fist. Within half a minute they were all shouting, standing, jumping, roaring and beating their chests. The patriotic music cut in and Big Brother came on screen. A huge, passive face, watching with attentive eyes behind a thick black moustache. The five on stage parted with quick, reassured movements and an unmissable gaze passed between O’Brien and Winston, Winston and Julia.
And that was the start of ninety enrapturing minutes.
Bryan Probets, who played Winston, was a perfect match. I can’t think of any other way Winston could be, even if that wasn’t how I’d imagined him to begin with. He gave the impression of being short and slight, ordinary to look at, weary or even exhausted, constantly on the brink of hysteria. A paranoia tagged him – well, paranoia is the huge thing for 1984. The way he spoke so loudly and abruptly was starkly contrasted by his vivid, fluid inner monologue. This seemed to suggest that how Winston saw himself was not the way he came across: that he was in fact giving himself away as an enemy of Big Brother.
Julia and O’Brien were great too, Julia an obstinate but lovely young rebel with more love for rebelling and for Winston than hate for the Party. O’Brien, balding and portly, was a force of terror unto himself. Nick Skubji, who played both Syme and Charrington, spoke in flawless blocks of prose and made it seem entirely fitting to the scene. The Australian accents provided an occasional wall breaking moment, particularly when Parsons was speaking. One moment you would be in Airstrip One, the next in Queensland. That said, Parsons was such a deftly performed character that it would be trivial to hold an accent against him.
I found the one jarring scene to be when Winston was at his work desk, using his speakwrite. The five actors sat in a row at the front of the stage, all flicking through invisible notes and muttering annotations. Although it was obvious enough to someone familiar with the book what was going on, I had to wonder what my mother thought was happening (and if she was still waiting for Winston to start singing.)
Speaking of the set. My gosh I am envious of the talent that built that set. It was very simple to look at: a bank of large screens against the back wall, and below that some large grates, an alcove at floor level, and a doorway. On either side were jagged walls painted to look like bombed-out buildings. This worked with the stark, low saturation lighting to create an atmosphere of gloom and oppression: you knew immediately that you were in dystopia. Add a few chairs and the set became the room for the Two Minute Hate. Add a couple of steel tabletops and it became the cafeteria of the Ministry of Truth. Open a wall and it was the bedroom above the antiques stall. Even the use of light was exceptional, taking you from the concrete dystopia of Airstrip One to a clearing in the forest in just a change of lights.
The bank of screens was used to add a depth to the play that would have been otherwise impossible. The images were constantly changing contextually to what was happening on stage. At times Winston was huddled in a dark alcove of the small set, and that was everything happening on stage. But above him was the bank of screens, and Winston speaking the words he was writing into his diary, or trembling in rage at the Party’s atrocities. At other times the screens served as a surveillance TV, filming Winston in his home or later in the Ministry of Love. Then there were the party slogans and propaganda videos for the Two Minute Hate and Hate Week, to which the characters on the set reacted violently, obviously watching the same thing that we were. At other times there was simply Big Brother, watching. And there were chaser images of Big Brother after Winston spoke – just a colour-inverted image lasting no more than a couple of frames. This worked to heighten the paranoia we felt for Winston, and the insidiousness of Big Brother.
It wasn’t all bad news for Mum. There was some music. Huge bursts of it during the Two Minute Hate and Hate Week, and several other keys points. I heard it said afterwards that some people found the noise was too loud, but for me I found it just this side of bearable. Besides, the noise rolling over you and consuming you was the point of it. My aunt said she could feel the bass shake right through her. But if there are bombs dropping and helicopters outside your window, shouldn’t you be shaking?
That attention 1984 demanded from the audience is the part I love the most about it. There was never any question of where we were, what was happening. In the theatre, no one moved, no one looked at their phone. It was impossible not to watch what was unfolding on stage or not be wrapped up in the enormous sound crashing over you. Even that it could maintain such a level of tension for the entire ninety minutes is astounding. And what tension! My heart was pounding for minutes after it had ended. Clapping at the end I felt, as I’m sure many in the audience did, less adulation and more a kind of rapture, an awe, more as though we had survived a bomb strike than seen a theatre production.
As I asked afterwards for people’s thoughts, the same word kept appearing again and again. Intense. 1984 is intense. It’s engaging and thrilling and even a little frightening, and it’s absolutely brilliant. If it’s in your town, go and see it, and let Big Brother shake you all over again.