This is honestly probably the hardest review I’ve ever had to write. 1984, the classic and probably most well-known dystopian novel in the history of English literature is – well – a book I’ve never read. Written in the aftermath of the second World War, the famous story follows Winston, an everyday man in Oceania, a totalitarian state encompassing what we call Great Britain and run by omnipresent dictator ‘Big Brother’, in approximately the year 1984. Winston defies the Thought-Police, who control and enforce the ideologies of the state, by keeping records in a journal, which helps him begin to question the influence of ‘Big Brother’, and together with Julia, a woman who defies the ‘no-sex’ law by meeting and sleeping with multiple men, they seek a way to bring an end to the rule of ‘Big Brother’. The story has been seen as cautionary to the blatant acceptance of authority and law without individual thought and question, and in light of current politics (think Trump and North Korea) perhaps more relevant than ever.
Let me state this up front – I was beyond hyped for this performance. Perhaps more than I should have been. With five star reviews floating around the internet and a VERY competent international cast, I was prepared to be blown away. And, yeah, it was good – it was entertaining, the acting was superb, the message and core of the story was there. But I left feeling a bit disappointed and not exactly sure why.
Upon further reflection, it was a feeling more of confusion than anything else. Let me liken it to watching the Harry Potter movies without reading the books – you get the gist of the story but nowhere near the depth as a real Harry Potter fan. There were bits that felt flat, that I didn’t quite understand, and the introduction of appendix-like segments that jump time (‘which brings the act of reading centre-stage, so that the story is being pored over, anticipated, responded to and enacted’ – Dominic Cavendish, 2014) left me feeling ‘disoriented’ (also from Cavendish’s review)… but not in a good way.
The impact of the story and its message was muddied by the development of the characters, which was stunted I think by the short performance time, so that things like the relationship between Winston and Julia seemed two dimensional and unconvincing. Overall, each individual character was interesting and full-bodied, but the pacing and jumping between times and spaces left me feeling like I was only barely treading water. The torture, the shock and the darker scenes definitely held me to the edge of my seat (although I must give a warning – there are some graphic depictions of violence and mutilation), and it was thrilling, if nothing else.
Kudos to the staging, lighting, sound and design, which brought both the truly horrific violence and the uneasy sense of omnipresent surveillance to life. The staging and choreography was eerie – movements synchronised like brainwash – and the quick scene changes kept the tension going. The plot of the novel was well preserved and its integrity was there – the confusion came only from the introduction of multiple flashbacks and flashforwards. If you’ve actually read the book (unlike me), this is a play that will explore further and give you a lot in return. If you haven’t – well, leave your expectations at the door.
1984 is showing at the Canberra Theatre Centre until this Saturday, 29th July. Tickets are selling out fast, so get yours quick at www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au.
*Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to attend 1984 as a guest of the Canberra Theatre Centre. I am very grateful to the theatre for this opportunity, but it in no way influences my opinion and review, and I try to keep all my content as honest and open as possible. You can read my full disclosure policy HERE.