“No one is free, even the birds are chained in the sky.” – Bob Dylan
A spotlight moves through the audience, searching, staring deep into the minds of the victims as they sit unknowing of their fate. Democracy has fallen and there is no hope. The lights fade and there is silence. The stage is empty. Big Brother is watching.
George Orwell’s novel 1984 springs to life with this stage adaptation presented by the highly entertaining theatre company Shake and Stir. In the totalitarian society of 1984, lies, myths and false information dictate the population and this is portrayed beautifully in the theatrical presentation of the novel. 1984 tells the story of Winston, a man with no hope, the party controls his life, his not his mind. He believes that the party is spreading false truths to retain power over the people, and to rebel, he commits ‘thought crime’ by thinking and writing about taking down the party and destroying the power that they possess.
Little does he know, the party is onto him. Orwell uses this as a comparison to the real world. It is his view that the If communist governments take over the world there will be no escape from their supreme rule. He instead believes in democratic socialism where there are still free elections. Socialism stops privatization by establishing collective ownership of major factors of production. And if there is no privatization the theory is there will be no corruption.
Well executed dramatic elements of role, mood and symbol, as well as the set and costumes of 1984 are what make it an outstanding piece of theatre and one that is effectively designed, not only through live presentation but with the aid of audio and visual pre-recordings. Like Shake and Stir’s previous Orwell reboot, Animal Farm, 1984 is presented through elements of realism as well as minimalism through the miming of objects and the use of imaginary sets.
The roles in the performance are uniquely developed and different for each performer. Winston is not just the lead character, but also a twisted representation of humanity, the real life population, and what we would do in that situation. His convincing portrayal surpassed any expectation. The audience watches Winston throughout the play develop as a person as his hate for The Party develops. In the beginning of the play Winston is going through his everyday routine, which involves falsely proclaiming love for the party, which helps him survive.
As the play continues Winston loses all hope and his he begins to not care about getting caught. This character development is captivating for the audience who identify Winston as the person they should emotionally connect with. The minor roles of Tom Parsons and Syme create an interesting feel to the play. Once they are killed off or ‘evaporated’, they appear in a number of different roles such as guards in the Ministry of Love or policemen arresting Winston and Julia. This double use of cast members creates a simplistic feel that stops the play from becoming overcrowded and complicated.
Julia’s role in the performance plays a significant part, as she is the only female present throughout the play. Her personality screams hope for a better life in contrast to the other actors’ characteristics of doom, dismay or love for The Party. Julia’s development through the play is subtle but well executed. She begins as just another resident in Oceania but transforms into the only symbol of confidence and hope presented in the show. This helps to further develop Winston’s character by Julia’s influence rubbing off on him. O’Brien’s character is the final observable role in 1984. O’Brien is an inner party member and the only one the audience physically witnesses.
For all we know, he could run the whole operation, as he seems to be very powerful when Winston is in the Ministry of Love by even showing mind reading powers. O’Brien is different to the other characters not only in his physical stature and age (being distinguishably older) but also in his appearance. He wears a suit but in the same uniformed ‘overall’ fashion as the rest of the cast. This part of the role represents his power (the suit) while still being controlled by ‘Big Brother’ (the work overalls). The significance of the hierarchy is fundamental to Orwell’s idea that Winston has no power and even inner party members are not fully in control.
The mood in 1984 explodes in the audiences face from the first second. Despair, heartbreak, torture and tyranny were feelings that the audience was expected to feel during the performance. The dark set aided the mood in its endeavor to achieve these feelings. The tension was evident as soon as Julia and Winston started their romance with hovered movements and purposefully dropped lines playing a pivotal role. Not only was there sexual tension between the couple but tension created by the held suspense for the pair to inevitably get caught. The audience was mesmerized by the fact that the pair could have their secret love affair and not be found out. Every time they practiced “thought crime,” the audience would think; this is it, they are going to be captured. But only when audience members feel as if maybe they will get away with it do they violently get captured. This suspense is what gives the play its spine tingling mood.
Not only was the mood set to entice and intrigue audience members, 1984 also made people think with its deep and meaningful symbolism. The sash that Julia wore was meant to be for the ‘Anti Sex League’, but it had so much more meaning than this. It was a distinguishing factor between her and the men that surrounded her. It was also a reason for Winston to look at her and therefore fall in love with her. But the major symbolism behind the sash was her defiance against Big Brother. When she wore it she seemed different and interesting, she stood out from the bland background from which she dwelled and that was why it was significant. From the very start of the show, symbolism was flowing through each individual’s mind subconsciously. The spot light at the start of the show, symbolized Big Brother’s watch over the people and in this case, the audience. It may not have seemed significant, but it was making an impression in the audience’s heads before they even knew what the play was about.
Props were also used symbolically. The notebook that Winston wrote in was a symbolic way to spew his thoughts onto paper and for the audience to audibly hear what Winston was thinking. This was imperative for the narrative to add extra meaning and depth. The last section of symbolism in 1984 was the room that Winston rented out. It was an oasis, an escape from the torture that was life. The room was lit brighter than the rest of the set and felt warm and comforting; it was a last look at a previous life, one without Big Brother. The authenticity of the room gave it contrast from the rest of the set made it stand out that little bit more, but it was inevitably the downfall of Winston and Julia’s relationship. This irony was well mastered and presented by the cast.
Not all creative prowess was based on the characters in 1984. The set was outstanding in creating an environment that really did feel post apocalyptic. Not only did it have the rotating part to open up into a different room but also it proved multi-purposeful. It served as a jail, a lonely street, the comforting home and a torture cell as well as the woods, all without changing the background. This was possible because of the creative genius that was the television screens. They completely revolutionized the feel of the play and created a strong atmospheric impression upon the audience. Not only did they serve as a look into Winston’s mind but they also painted a beautiful picture of his dreams. As well as being a depiction of Winston, they portrayed security cameras and television screens to enhance the story even further. This technological addition to the performance made the already insightful story even more profound.
Shake and Stir have done an inestimable justice to Orwell’s 1984. With the role of characters structurally thought-out down to the finest points, the mood was set and designed to divide the minds of audiences and make them question reality at the present. They created symbolism that was insightful and thought provoking while still being detectable. Stunningly raw sets merged with large screens that created a post apocalyptic world in front of the eyes of viewers. Audience members leave the theatre wondering…
“Is Big Brother watching?”