Big Brother switches off

Ollie Evans 30 October 2007

It’s a shame that last week’s Motortown didn’t have an audience as large as this show did. Enthusiasm for the opening night of Nineteen Eighty-Four at the ADC is testament to the inevitable nostalgia that swells through any intelligent mind, fresh from adolescence, whenever George Orwell’s masterpiece of dystopian horror is mentioned. As Winston Smith slurps his ‘Victory Coffee’ on stage, US troops are being served their ‘Victory Fries’ in Iraq. Orwell’s prophetic imagination never ceases to find itself frighteningly relevant to the world of today. This obviously poses a challenge to those who want to resurface this familiar text on the stage; a challenge which, as Emily Cook recognises in her programme notes, should avoid clich├ęs and the obvious (i.e. CCTV cameras), whilst engaging its audience by making it “think” and “feel”. Unfortunately, the production, despite its inspired aesthetic, failed to grip the audience enough to do justice to Orwell’s novel.

Becky Homer’s design was unmistakably the star of the show. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s theme of the repetitive ‘branding’ of the mind through doublespeak is cleverly employed through the simple and effective colour scheme of red and white, a ‘brand’ of design that invades the audience’s consciousness, through the publicity posters to the haunting minimalism of ‘Room 101’. As a large screen informs us that “Big Brother is watching”, and the characters below recall the dictums, “War is Peace” or “Freedom is Slavery”, which are draped in red and white above them, we can’t shake off the feeling that no one on stage is safe to think freely. ‘Winston’ and ‘Julia’s’ secret hideout is assembled without a blackout, which presents it as a dangerously exposed and easily destructible space physically mirroring the fragile optimism of their illegal affair.

It was a pity that Ed Rice and Jenny Kenyon, promising in their individual performances, were unable to provide these scenes with enough of a convincing chemistry for us to care. Dan Martin brought some welcome humour to his snotty and foppish portrayal of ‘Parsons’. Rice’s ‘Winston Smith’ contained flashes of inspiration with a characteristic hunch and effortlessly aged expression, as did Dave Walton who brought a sober and chilling menace to his ‘O’Brian’. But as a group there was an evident lack of tenacity and variation which dragged the production down to a generally sluggish and laboured level of performance. In spite of the inventive staging, which certainly helped us to “think”, the execution of the piece failed to stir our emotions enough for us to care about the protagonists. We might as well just turn to the newspapers if we want a chilling portrait of our times, or to Motortown.

Ollie Evans