Bringing a familiar story to a different medium while both building on and respecting story’s original meaning is a challenge for even the most talented creators among us. It is a challenge that Headlong Theatre faced in their production of 1984 – and it is a challenge that they triumphed over.
1984 is the story of Winston Smith and his quest for truth and love in the face of a ruling totalitarian government known as The Party.
The Party control the people through mass surveillance and altering the past, Winston is tasked with rewriting history by deleting and altering newspapers articles with scepticism. This scepticism leads him having an affair with Julia, risking his life for the sake of love.
The adaptation of Orwell’s dystopian novel boasts an all-Australia cast starring Tom Conroy (Winston) and Ursula Mills (Julia). The performances of Conroy and Mills were dynamic and intimate, a worthy representation of Winston and Julia’s rebellious relationship – a forbidden love that could only be trumped by Romeo and Juliet.
In the novel, Orwell expresses his fears of life under a totalitarian state primarily through the inner monologues of Winston, which leaves the concept of a stage version somewhat difficult to comprehend.
However, not only does 1984 feel appropriate for the stage, the production even excels in ways the book does not. Lights and sound play a significant role, which Natasha Chivers and Tim Reid have used to simulate life under the Party; a jarring, noisy, and abrasive world that is particularly dangerous for “thought criminals.”
Visual media was also utilised with a huge screen towering over the stage projecting live video of scenes that take place off-stage. This technique was interesting from a technical point of view but, unlike the other multimedia elements, it ultimately reduces the impact on the audience.
The actors are also not afraid to break the fourth wall in bringing the audience into the performance, treating them as if they are “Big Brother” himself, with Winston shouting to the crowd, “I know you’re there I can see you. Someone stand up, please help me!”
A sense of déjà vu is achieved in early scenes by secondary characters who repeat the same motions every morning, causing Winston to question his sanity while a news bulletin announces “the chocolate ration has been raised to twenty grammes” for the third morning in a row.
The story of Winston and Julia still has much to say about the threats our civilisation faces, whether it be what Orwell saw in a post-World War Two Britain or in the increasingly globalised world we live in today.
In recent years, the novel has been referenced relentlessly by journalists, media personalities and politicians in relation to surveillance and privacy concerns worldwide. If Orwell could glimpse into the modern world he would likely be concerned at many developments that have been labelled as progressive.
In 1984 the concept of “Newspeak” – that is a constructed language where words are removed by the state in order to hold ideological power – can easily be compared it to the language restrictions being been introduced in the US under the banner of protecting pronouns of the gender neutral.
A move which has caused political rifts between those who see the move as protecting the rights of the oppressed and others who argue it is an Orwellian compromise of freedom of speech.
The popularity of ‘Alt-right’ and ‘Antifa’ movements would also concern Orwell, who famously predicted that accusations of fascism become “almost entirely meaningless” through constant misuse.
His concern would also be on the movements for equality which are becoming too fanatical, too hateful, and even if they do achieve equality — through their means of bastardising freedom of speech — it will be at the cost of two plus two equalling five.
As much as the current state of the world seems dire, there must be some hope for us if intelligent, entertaining, and unyielding productions such as 1984 can still be seen without penalty or censorship.