Big Brother Revisited

1984 the Play: a powerful, stripped down interpretation of a classic that engages the imagination without special effects

Barry Currid as O’Brien and Dave Moskin as Winston Smith, the prisoner in 1984 | Photo: Rolf Bock

Walking to the International Theatre, slightly ill, constantly coughing and clutching to my coat, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt decent. The past week has worn me out and nothing seemed to offer poise. It dawned on me that my emotional state would fit right into 1984, George Orwell’s dystopic vision of Oceania, England as it might have been under a dictatorship.

I was excited to see 1984 the Play, trying to imagine how this complex tale could be condensed for the stage. The book had astonished me when I first read it – such a disturbing portrayal of totalitarianism crushing the individual on every level written as a warning of what must never be allowed to happen – and its themes seem to add ever more layers the more I have tried to penetrate them.

How could this be cut down to an hour and a half? And without any carefully- crafted images of gray buildings and smog-thick skies? Without the endless rows of blank faces and vast empty corridors? I was intrigued to see what director Jack Babb’s vision would entail.

The curtain rose on the middle of Winston’s interrogation scene. Using two actors to portray this central character, switching between the present and the world of his memory, half of the stage constantly is swathed in shadow…  I sighed – a perfect way to adapt a story of such intricacy. The events were unraveling before our eyes, all leading back to the present moment of the play, multiplying the significance of every word and conversation.

The first part of the play shows Winston seeking sanctuary from Party propaganda and surveillance cameras, as he rents a room in which, he is sure, he can finally enjoy privacy. This room becomes the podium from which we learn about the world of 1984, witness the fear and anxiety as well as the development of the moving relationship between Winston and Julia, his lover. In Orwell’s vision, love and sex are revolutionary acts, because through time, a person reclaims humanity, and rediscovers the feelings indoctrination cannot conquer. The intimacy between these characters grows increasingly heartbreaking – the viewer already knows where it leads.

This island of humanity in a world of terror shrinks with every second, the conversations becoming dark and fatalistic. Many of Winston’s thoughts from the novel are voiced by the actors on stage, allowing the play to illuminate several of the most important thoughts the book has to offer.

The second part takes place almost completely in the torture chamber where Winston gets “cured” by Inner Party member O’Brien. This is where the true nature of Big Brother’s totalitarianism is revealed through O’Brien’s rants and the cynical brutality with which indoctrination is forced upon the individual. Layer by layer, we see Winston stripped of his humanity, until every bit of it is torn out and he is left an empty shell of a man, his tragedy — a symbol of the millions of others doomed to live in a world of confusion and hate.

The performances in this powerful production are consistently noteworthy.  Barry Currid, however, takes the play to another level with his visceral portrayal of the soothingly terrifying inquisitor O’Brien. Everything, from his posture to the barely noticeable facial twitches, radiates the conscious cruelty of Big Brother. Currid’s O’Brien is a propaganda poster, a child turning his parents over to the thought police, the voice yelling doublethink slogans from the loudspeaker, shattering common sense. During the torture scene he masterfully goes from mock sympathetic to psychotic in the blink of an eye, getting the gestures and intonations just right.

Kevin Brock’s Winston comes across as almost naïve at first, and surely too good-natured to survive in the world of Big Brother, his apathy and constant self doubt a bit underplayed. But perhaps that was the point; analyzing the play afterwards you come to the conclusion that this was a necessity to keep the character consistent within the boundaries of the play. It is also a refreshing portrayal, not a duplicate of John Hurt’s epic performance in the film adaptation, but a stand-alone portrayal of a more fragile and romantic Winston, one difficult to imagine blending in during the festivities of Hate Week. This Winston brings a new dimension to the scene where O’Brien tricks him in to disclosing his readiness to kill, steal and cheat if it somehow damages The Party, a reminder of the romantics of centuries past that have committed atrocities for a greater good.

Astrid Herbich’s Julia is exactly the way I imagined her. Her smile and the will to live conceal the raging undercurrent of hatred for The Party, clearly felt throughout the entire play. Hers is the mouth that explains to the audience many of the techniques the Party employs to keep people under control. Her sensuality and reluctance to oppose Big Brother are masterfully portrayed.

If you’re a devotee of 1984, this play will be a welcome addition, an interesting take on Orwells magnum opus that will probably make you want to read the novel once again. If you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, it will give you a strong push, while also shedding light on some of the ideas that explode from between its covers. The bottom line — this is a powerful interpretation of a classic that engages the imagination without special effects or high-production values. No bells, no whistles: just pure drama.

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