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George Orwell’s 1984

by on 8 November 2019

Watching You

George Orwell’s 1984

by George Orwell, adapted for the stage by Matthew Dunster

The Questors at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 16th November

Review by Nick Swyft

“War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, “Ignorance is Power”. These are all seemingly nonsensical statements displayed on video screens around the theatre as the play begins. The set is austere, as befits the subject, with a room above the stage for later scenes. We then see Winston Smith (Julian Smith) doing his job of presenting ‘alternative facts’ according to the requirements of IngSoc, the shadowy regime under which everyone lives, embodied by the immortal figure of ‘Big Brother’.

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Winston Smith is a subversive from the start, and Julian Smith gives us a subtle portrayal of someone who is a little separate from the herd. When Goldstein (Simon Taylor), the resistance leader is pilloried on screen, his co-workers join the jeering enthusiastically in true Jeremy Kyle style, but Winston is seen as apart from the others.

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He writes his secret memoir in the ‘privacy’ of his apartment, although everywhere there are the ever-present telescreens. These present constant propaganda while at the same time watching the viewer (not unlike Alexa perhaps). Unfortunately throughout the performance these were inactive, which took away from their pervasive impact. Thus, when the old antique dealer Charrington (John Davey) shows him his upstairs bedroom, the fact that there is no telescreen there doesn’t have quite the impact it should.

The first part of the play is about world building – the constant war between Oceania and Eurasia, the relentlessly positive propaganda and the contrasting general misery of the populace. During this section, we learn of Winston’s relationship with his mother and also his sterile relationship with his wife. It is against party policy to derive any pleasure from sex, and as she lies flat on the marital bed it was easy to wonder how the population could possibly survive.

We are also introduced to Mrs Parsons (Lisa Day) and the Parson’s children. These are delightful brats who are disappointed at having had to miss the hanging of Eurasian prisoners – not too dissimilar to a lot of children today.

In the work canteen Smith meets Mr Parsons (Robert Gordon Clark), who portrays the proud father well, telling us how well his children support the Party. Smith also talks to Syme (Wesley Lloyd) who is working on reducing the number of words in the dictionary to make the fine art of ‘double think’ easier for the general population to grasp. Lloyd is very believable as the enthusiastic young lexicographer.

1984dress9His first encounter with Julia (Clare Purdy) is puzzling to begin with. It is a fantasy scene in which he is seen attacking her. Later, it turns out that she is a member of the hated thought police and when he tells her that he used to think about raping and murdering her, one wonders whether this would ever work as a chat-up line.

When he gets the famous note in which she says “I love you” the words are repeated over and over on the speakers – the mechanism for voicing everything that is read. This should have had more impact than it did, since it wasn’t even clear that Winston had actually received the note.

1984dress2Clare’s performance brings a breath of fresh air both to the world in which they live and to the production itself, which is necessarily dour. She is a vivacious free spirit, who works in the porn department providing material to keep the proles in their bedrooms rather than on the streets causing trouble. What’s not to like?

As their relationship develops it is clear from the performances how different Winston and Julia are. He is an intellectual subversive, while his view of her is that her subversion begins below the waist.

At the start of Act Two, Winston reads Goldstein’s book to Julia in bed, and Goldstein (Simon Taylor) himself reads it to the audience. This is quite a long scene that adds little to the production, which is two and a half hours as it is, except perhaps for the die-hard intellectuals. For them the advice would be to actually read Orwell’s book.

Then follows the arrest and subsequent breaking down of Winston.

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His nemesis O’Brien (David Erdos) does not come across as overtly sinister. Rather he portrays the cuddly, if somewhat sadistic, voice of reason, which is far more effective. He is almost able to persuade the audience that maybe Winston Smith is the bad guy after all. After all a man who has openly admitted to be willing to betray his country, spy for the enemy and more damningly, throw acid into the face of a child, may not be a paragon of virtue.

Smith is an outsider, and there are questions here regarding how such outsiders should be treated by society, but they are not the ones that we generally believe 1984 to ask.

A succession of other prisoners come and go, and the scene in which Bumstead (John Dobson) is constantly taunted for being unable to stop his shaking, was well done. A classic example of the kind bullying we’ve all seen, where the torturer is clearly enjoying his cruel fun. Parsons, the proud father, is even glad that it was his daughter who shopped him for talking in his sleep. Syme also appears, needing to be cleansed of the idea that he is actually destroying the language in his work.

1984dress14It is hard to portray torture scenes on stage, not least because it’s illegal to actually hurt the actor, but also because today’s audiences are too squeamish for that kind of thing. Unfortunately this means that we are not as engaged with this as we might be, although Julian Smith does much to recover this shortcoming.

1984dress15At the end, Smith is stripped and humiliated. More than the torture, this an extremely powerful scene. Julian Smith’s performance during this harrowing scene was outstanding. Winston Smith’s identity, which has been scurrying around his brain like the rats he is so frightened of, is finally cornered. When O’Brien holds up four fingers and tells him that the Party says that it is five, we can believe that he actually does see five fingers.

There is only one thing left. Julia. He insists that he will never betray her, even though she betrayed him at the first opportunity. O’Brien attaches a mask to his face, which is attached to a long tube at the end of which there is a box of hungry rats. O’Brien lifts the first door to the box which allows the rats to see him and him to see the rats. Smith’s morbid fear of rats prompts the response ‘do it to Julia, not me’. (Unfortunately the tube is so long that there is no way he could see the rats. A note perhaps to the props department?)

And so his ‘rehabilitation’ is complete. Free, he meets Julia again. They confess to having betrayed each other – although maybe betrayal is the wrong word in context – and they part with a kind of ‘see you around’; they don’t hate each other, but they no longer love each other either.

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Finally, Winston is seen with a crowd enthusiastically confessing his love for ‘Big Brother’. What sets this production apart from other dystopian visions, aside from the glitches, is that we can believe that he means it.

Nick Swyft
November 2019

Photography by Rishi Rai

Editor’s Note:
This production of George Orwell’s 1984 is The Questors Theatre’s Ninetieth Anniversary Celebratory Production.
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