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Manchester theatre reviews

1984 Royal Exchange Manchester

1984 - The Royal Exchange Theatre

WORLD PREMIERE of stage adaptation and direction by Matthew Dunster
Designed by Paul Wills

Reviewed by Simon Belt on 01 Mar 2010

The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester launched their new season of 2010 with '1984' - a dramatic but disturbing adaptation of George Orwell's cherished novel of totalitarian state control of thought and behaviour.


The Royal Exchange Theatre is very creatively designed to offer an intimate connection with the audience that many similar spaces don’t have, and this production used that intimacy to both invite the audience in and brutally repel them away with a disturbing and unnerving contrast.


George Orwell’s classic text ‘1984’, written in 1948, has been a staple read for many in their youth and became especially popular in the year of its title in response to the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Written just after World War II to expose the blind allegiance to party doctrine by subordinate Stalinist political groups, 1984 has subsequently been used by generations to articulate their grievances at authoritarian state regulation and control.


WinstonWinston Smith (played by Jonathan McGuinness), citizen of Oceana and the central character of the book and therefore this play, rewrites history at the Ministry of Truth, where they also systematically cleanse the language of any words that are considered unnecessary (sounds a bit like erasing 'unneccesary' travel today to me), alongside colleagues who spend their time policing the thought processes of their subjects, sorry citizens. When he is handed a note that simply says ‘I love you’, by a woman he hardly knows, he decides to risk everything in a search for the real truth. With the government always watching, we're invited to see if Winston can hold on to what he feels in his heart, or will he renounce everything, accept The Party’s reality, and learn to love Big Brother?


Quite cleverly the production makes use of an anomaly in the anti-smoking legislation to emphasise how far the behaviour police have extended their reach into areas unimaginable in 1948. Scenes showing how the proletariat just get on with their lives and enjoy themselves - drinking, smoking and enjoying each others company - are in stark contrast to the uptight and over-regulating middle class party aparatchiks of the Big Brother state. This paranoia borne of isolation and privilege is in no way dated, although it rather underestimates how far things have moved on since Orwell's day - see this article reporting on ASH's relaxed approach to hyper-regulation today.


The scene of kids (who I thought expressed great stage presence by the way) picking on Winston to expose any thought crimes he may be guilty of, was surprisingly awkward and out of kilter with the rest of the show. It felt somewhat shoe-horned into the stage craft, especially given that there are now so many examples of this being done quite subtley and insidiously today. For example, kids today having to learn a different version of the 3Rs at school to the ones we grew up learning - namely recycle, re-use and reduce rather than reading, writing and arithmetic - and then coming home to 'correct' their parents' behaviour, would have matched the smoking on stage example.


As an audience you are energetically frog-marched through the story with a superbly interwoven musical backdrop, almost to the point of wanting to join in the escapist trip to the countryside with Julia, author of the 'I love you note', and very confidently played by Caroline Bartleet in this her first performance at the Royal Exchange Theatre. The relentless drive forward of plot through well orchestrated and choreographed scene changes and disorientating questions of who to trust left me feeling like I was living in a series of continually changing 5 year plans - welcome to the authoritarian state machine.


Unsettled before the break, we returned for the pummelling torture process with O'Brien delivering a stunning performance of carefully controlled hate and violence in hopeless domination to break Winston and force him to give up Julia. Having cornered and broken Winston like a caged animal, the masterful O'Brien explains the retrospective justification behind the essentially defensive and self-perpetuating state machine in a faultlesslly engaging summation speech. Matthew Flynn who played O'Brien absolutely exemplified the character of this adaptation in its brutal, intense and yet highly controlled performance. 


Lastly, I'd just like to give a big shout out for the whole team behind this production who cohered extremely well, and exemplified through the very high quality and thoughtful programme, which approached the audience's engagement in the themes of the play very well, and dovetailed it with the fascinating exhibition in the Mezzanine Gallery on REALITY TV – a fascinating exhibition on the theme of CCTV by Manchester photographer David Dunnico. The exhibition documents our ‘surveillance society’, the organisations which operate it, the companies that sell it and the people who oppose it and runs alongside the stage play.

Note: Discussing contemporary forms of 1984 style authoritarianism, the Manchester Salon is hosting a discussion on Monday 17 May entitled Freedom and fun: how 'including' the public leads to their exclusion.

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