Review: 1984

There are certain times in theatre when you can trust the text.  You have the knowledge that what you are performing is so strong that the writing itself can carry the production on its own. Shakespeare is an example.  You have to go at it pretty hard to create a poor Hamlet. The strength of the writing will cover any staging, acting or directorial errors or weaknesses. Orwell’s 1984, which played at The Grand last week, has such a pedigree.

The seminal book of the abuse of power and the paranoia that comes with dystopian society is so strong that you would have to set it on Mars with The Muppets to create a bad adaptation. The current incarnation of 1984, which Headlong Theatre is touring with at the moment, is possibly the best adaptation of the book of the many I’ve seen, and this includes the jaw droppingly powerful 1950s BBC version with Peter Cushing so I’m not saying it glibly.

It is very rare to find a piece of theatre so on target, so perfectly pitched, acted, staged and directed. From the very opening of the 101 minutes (a number ingrained into the cultural psyche because of the book’s harrowing room of correction and re-education) the audience is pinned back into their seats as Orwell’s classic is reinterpreted and given new energy through the ingenious staging and direction. Every actor of the strong ensemble cast of eight is so focused on the performance you can’t help but be dragged into the horror of everyday oppression and thought control.

Matthew Spencer’s Winston Smith, the rabbit in headlights central figure of the play, is astounding.  His horrific rollercoaster of love and rebellion is brutally given life through his nuanced and sensitive performance.  This sensitivity is throw into sharp contrast when the walls of the 1950s-like politically media fed world collapse around him and all that he knows is stripped away to be replaced with hate. It is as powerful a performance from an actor as I’ve ever seen.  Hats off to him.

Staging a world of surveillance and oppression was masterfully done through the inventive set and the massive wall of projection.  The two minutes of hate that the cast threw at us was powered home through CCTV-like footage and media news reports. The bland 1950s municipally toned set was then torn away, as Winston’s world was on his capture, and a stark white walled cube was created. The pristine lines were a perfect counterpoint to the black gas mask-wearing guards and the fountains of blood that led to the inevitable and rat-filled hat of doom.

I could elaborate on the many successes of this triumphal production but I would be here all day. The show sold out in Blackpool but carries on across the country and you should make a trip to see it if at all possible as the like of it will be a long time coming again. Yet another success for The Grand which is chalking up a fair few knockout shows of late, and not an ABBA wig or Beatle in sight.

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