Review: 1984 is chilling, haunting and jarringly ominous (Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre until June 10th)

The tragedy (or triumph) of George Orwell’s 1984 as a book is that it is too real for today’s world. It’s a complex, evocative piece of writing where one Big Brother overrules all and controls our thoughts feelings and dare punish us for getting independent thought.

This production, adapted by UK company Headlong, first came to Australia for the 2015 Melbourne Festival. It has now come back for a full tour of Australia with a local cast. This production is directed by Associate Director Corey McMahon who also worked on the most recent West End season alongside creators of this production Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan.

This stage production is arguably a darker version of what that book portrays, and rightly so for today. There is a portrayal of a man in a dystopian world trying to understand what is happening, but there is more of a focus on torture and panic than what the book portrays. This makes for a gripping watch.

For those unaware, Orwell’s novel is not a light-hearted read. The story focuses on Comrade 6079 aka Winston Smith, as he tries to figure out a highly-regimented world that may or may not be set in 1984. The non-identifiable Big Brother is always watching, and will always deny Winston the explanation he so craves.

Tom Conroy brings the character of Winston a weirdly unique charm, but a running sense of dread consistently trawls through his character. Ursula Mills has a stern fear in her face in her portrayal of Julia, but Terence Crawford as the over-arching dominant O’Brien steals the production away, particularly in the final third of the production. He captivates with a long, evocative monologue about the meaninglessness of thought that punches you deep. It resonated profoundly into the reaches of the audience as if we had to be afraid of him. That this is what is happening now, to us, the public of today. Renato Musolino also plays a fantastically stoic, emotionless Martin.

This is a play, while including an impressive amount of multimedia, told its message best with small gestures. A dim light on the audience, an ominous smoke flowing over the audience and a repeated re-imagination of the same kitchen scene build towards a conclusion that is unerringly cold.

In opposition to this – and take this as a word of warning –  bright flashes of light, booming thunderous droning noises and blood occur through this show without too much warning. It is assumed that you are familiar with the book and in a way, this play expands further on themes in a richer way than the book does. If you do come into this play without knowing too much about Orwellian ideology, then it may seem a tad confusing.

It is these subtle changes that are the star of the play itself that give this stage production of 1984 a closer step to Orwell’s mind of an abysmally, nightmarish, obedient society. Particularly for these dangerous times.

1984 plays at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre until June 10th. It also will continue with seasons in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Perth until August. More info can be found here.

The reviewer attended the show on 3rd June.

Photo credit: Shane Reid

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