The staging of Dunster’s adaptation of the Orwell classic, 1984, is an ambitious undertaking. The novel is famous for its ability to capture raw human passions of desire, blind fear, and sacrifice, along with evoking a fear for humanity, forcing readers to question authority, power and sanity in their own worlds. Director Bridie Rollins and producer Martha Rose Wilson of the Nottingham New Theatre set themselves a high challenge, yet with innovative staging, exceptional acting, and an acute eye for detail throughout, this challenge was executed perfectly.
Expectations were indeed very high, and overwhelming demand resulted in an impromptu sixth performance being scheduled this Friday. The atmosphere in the foyer immediately reflected this anticipation, with announcements concerning live animals and mysterious ‘alternative’ seating stirring up suspense from the outset.
Seating a selection of audience members on scaffold ‘watch-towers’ in the round was an ambitious move, yet was a risk that paid off, creating the desired atmosphere of paranoia and fear, and provided the framework for the innovative minimalistic set.
Small moments of genius from Rollins were frequent, such as the simple chorography to marching beats which echoed the repetitive continuality of the police state. Particularly notable is the continuously creative use of rope, representing both security and restraint at different moments. The attention to detail within the movement, lighting design, sound, on-stage projections and set should be highly commended, resulting in a slick and professional show.
One concern however is the disturbing torture scene involving Winston and a pair of live rats. Their close proximity to the screaming Hollands made for a dramatic climax to the production, however, desperate to escape their shaking cage, the rats seemed to be the ones being tortured.
The cast themselves gave exceptional performances. The relentless torturer O’Brien (Richard Hill) was suitably callous, and a gripping emotional display from Emily Thompson stood out. Ben Hollands (Winston) deserves particular mention; his all-encompassing energy and commitment to the role created the physicality necessary to carry off such a disturbing and controversial play. Although Hollands’ portrayal of Winston began more vulnerable than expected, and I initially questioned how he would perform in the more challenging scenes, these doubts were firmly put to rest after the interval. His initial innocence contrasted with his bursts of rage and shocking confessions in the second half, giving an astounding performance.
Amelia Gann (Julia) was strong from the outset, playing her promiscuous role with a confidence and certainty that immediately engages the audience. Despite this, the chemistry between her and Hollands is questionable, making their apparent devotion to one another unconvincing. Their forbidden love affair seems to be more of a lusty need for corruption and freedom than a real love story.
This could be as a result of the stage-adaptation, which excludes major aspects of the novel that help to set the foundations of their relationship. The fact that the stage adaptation is a mere skeleton of the original novel also means that for somebody who isn’t familiar with the story, the narrative becomes difficult to follow, jumping from scene to scene rather carelessly.
However, with Rollins’ and Wilson’s innovative staging and the many leading performances, these issues were not of major concern. This version of 1984 is a triumph; managing to portray extremely challenging topics and scenes professionally within the constraints of an unconventional staging environment. I would highly recommend seeing this outstanding piece of theatre.
A limited number of tickets are still available for the extra Friday (30th Nov) matinee performance of 1984. Email [email protected] to book.