1984 by George Orwell, adapted by Patsy Hughes

In light of recent game-changing revelations about the extent of unethical journalistic practices and links between the media, politicians, and the police in the UK, a theatrical staging of George Orwell’s 1984 seems especially apposite. Orwell’s novel is a classic work of modernist angst ruminating on the dangers of the totalitarian state and media control. Big Brother’s cold, censorious gaze constantly surveys its Citizenship from television screens, directing daily actions and thoughts as the Party works to stop free thinking, rewrite history, and denude language of any seditious potential.

Winston, Orwell’s reluctant hero, struggles to conform and has begun to question the Party. He craves the pleasures of thought and action Big Brother has prohibited, seeks out an illicit sexual relationship with Julia, a like-minded free spirit who welcomes his attention, and he wants to join the Brotherhood, an underground anti-Party organisation. However, he is duped by O’Brien, a high-ranking Party member who persuades Winston he is a member of the Brotherhood only to win his confidence and find out the truth about his disloyalty to Party ideology. Once exposed, Winston is arrested and tortured into submission by O’Brien at the Ministry of Love.

Patsy Hughes adapts and directs this version of 1984 for the stage. Hughes' adaptation is satisfyingly sparse in the first half, driven by action, and pushes events along at an appropriate pace. Unfortunately, this gives way to a second half protracted by exposition, which overindulges in lengthy exchanges between Winston and O’Brien. More generally the work here also suffers in adaptation because it loses much of Winston’s driving inner conflict. Hughes tries to compensate for this through monologue and the use of diary extracts read aloud. However, these are too similarly pitched, frenetic confessionals which do little more than establish a general mood of foreboding. In her staging, Hughes also physicalises key moments as a means to extend and visually underscore emotional depth – but these moments are too few and too inexpertly choreographed to achieve this, coming across as appendages rather than integral creative elaborations.

The production is served well, in the first instance, by a strong, if perhaps clich├ęd, image of Winston (and the audience) being watched over by a wall of television screens. Onto this the Party and Big Brother broadcast to Party members and, more sinisterly, monitor their activities. The cast (and ushers) are dressed in rough blue boiler suits, and overall this production echoes the visual style of Michael Radford’s bleak film version of Orwell’s oppressive state as much as it does Orwell’s novel.

The set, however, becomes increasingly problematic as the production develops. The wall of TVs, necessary as it clearly is, dominates too often and dwarfs the live elements of performance. To her credit, Hughes moves her performers freely in early sections, especially in transitions, and opens the acting space in front of the all-seeing, ever-present wall to a more fluid and theatrical performance style. But this aspect of the staging diminishes as the play progresses and eventually we are left with the wall and a static, over-long realisation of Winston’s torture scene. There are, of course, arguments to be made in favour of staging that works to establish the omnipotent sense of Big Brother’s presence, but in reality this was over played with the ultimate effect being melodramatic rather than disturbing.

Philip Bunting’s performance as Winston is committed but limited. He chooses to play Winston’s desperation too early in the play and in doing so raises the pitch far too soon - ignoring, for example, the onset of Winston’s growing philosophical crisis. A surer directorial hand might have found a way to hold Bunting here. In effect, he is left with nowhere to go, subsequently playing out a number of variations on this desperation. Dearbhail Carr, as Julia, has less to work with from the script but acquits herself well in the first half of the play, bringing a relieving lightness to the work when at her best. But Carr and Bunting are never believable as a couple: talking past each other too often and not managing to draw out the anguish of their characters meeting each other again after they have each betrayed the other when being tortured. Andy Moore gives an unsubtle performance as O’Brien, in a production where this is appropriate. David Quinn, as the anchorman for Party broadcasts seen periodically on the screens throughout the performance, echoes Moore's approach, and is similarly one-dimensional. Jon Traynor’s sound design is one of the highlights of the production: clean bites of electonika mixed with more melodic interludes.

Though there are some moments of engaging theatre here, 1984 seems to ask for a more nuanced set of creative theatrical solutions to the problems of adapting it for the stage than this production is able to deliver. In the end, Green Room’s version opts too often for a sinister gloss in the hope that mood alone might be enough to carry some of the more dramatically immature scenes being presented.

Paul Devlin is a Lecturer in Drama in the University of Ulster’s School of Creative Arts, Magee Campus, Derry.

  • Review
  • Theatre

1984 by George Orwell, adapted by Patsy Hughes

5 - 9 July, 2011

Produced by Green Room Productions
In Crescent Arts Centre

Directed by Patsy Hughes

Sound Design: Jon Traynor

With: Philip Bunting, Dearbhail Carr, Andy Moore, David Quinn and Gemma Mae Hannigan