In a recent poll, 42% of Britons surveyed admitted to lying about having read George Orwell’s 1984 in order to appear more intelligent and cultured, an appropriate irony given the classic novel’s preoccupation with the disturbing malleability of ‘truth’. Personally of course, I’ve always counted it among my all-time favourite reads – but then, that’s what I would say, isn’t it?
That so many of us can convincingly claim to have read 1984 without ever having flipped the cover tells us something about how deeply its ideas, tropes and linguistic inventions have sunk into the cultural bedrock. Fortunately, RedTIE theatre put together a powerful and effective dramatisation that managed to break through much of the fog of familiarity surrounding Orwell’s masterpiece.
Conjuring an authoritarian dystopia on stage isn’t easy, but directors Carl Burch, Imogen Stone and Mimi Poulton utilised a range of non-naturalistic tricks and devices to make the all-consuming dictatorship of Oceana feel appropriately stifling. The cliched image of ‘Big Brother’ is nowhere to be seen, his omnipresence instead represented by the ordinary citizens surrounding Joe Davies’ Winston Smith, who all take their turns to speak fragments of Orwell’s iconic prose as narration.
The young cast’s performances are strong, as you’d expect from a RedTIE production. Joe Davies as the everyman protagonist is appropriately nervy and baffled throughout the first act but blazes into life during the second half, powerfully realising Smith’s transformation from reluctant bureaucrat to passionate would-be revolutionary, a man furiously rattling the bars of an internalised cage.
Carl Burch deftly switches between paternal warmth and sadistic cruelty as party official O’Brien, and Imogen Stone assuredly captures Julia’s particular combination of revolutionary fervour and down-to-earth practicality. The ensemble cast impress with a range of incidental characters – though the nature of youth productions means many are playing roles far from their real ages, they effectively bring much-needed flashes of colour and humour into an otherwise relentlessly bleak piece.
Whilst the adaptation could feel like it was struggling to find the right gear during the stop-start vignettes of the first half-hour – prose novels are structured so differently from stage-plays that they rarely translate completely smoothly – it was in the convincingly blood-splattered torture scenes of the second act that it really found its voice, communicating the brutality and (in)humanity of Orwell’s vision with confidence and flair.
Long after the cold war’s end, and the almost-total collapse of Stalinist totalitarianism across the world, 1984 now seems more of a timeless, mythic morality play than the scathing commentary it must have been in 1948. But RedTIE’s young performers made it fresh and biting again for a new audience last Friday night at the Apollo Theatre, and that is no small achievement.