State of Play: 1984, Royal Exchange Theatre

State of Play: 1984, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 24 Feb – 27 March

George Orwell’s 1984 is showing at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 27 March. The play never strays too far from the original text and is adapted from the novel by playwright, director and actor Matthew Dunster, who also directed the Exchange’s sinister production of Macbeth last year.

Overall it is an action-packed, darkly comic and sexually charged production, with relatively minimal props. Jonathan McGuinness’s Winston is convincing and impassioned, yet occasionally a little naïve. Likewise Caroline Bartleet is a confident Julia, but her at times strained performance betray her recent graduation from acting school. The cast are multi-talented and the acting is well choreographed. The play begins and ends with the ministry workers saluting and singing ‘Oceania I love you’ (which I unfortunately can’t get out of my head) to the faceless authority of the telescreens. About five of these transparent, lit-up frames are suspended from the ceiling in various positions and lowered throughout the performance when needed.

In spite of this minimalism, the Royal Exchange’s use of props are effective and more often than not their interpretations have been some of the most innovative I have seen in contemporary theatre. A battered bed, grubby sink, desk and telescreen are all that comprise Winston’s flat. When he is asked by his neighbour to have a look at her sink McGuinness instinctively whirls his own around to a new position at the other end of the stage and cranes his head underneath, to symbolise a scene shift; spinning it back to its original position when he has finished. The actors are prepared to enact the scene changes as part of their role, and that is the great thing about the Exchange. The first time this happens you notice it, but afterwards you begin to view the performance as more fluid and sequential than that of a fixed stage play with clearly defined acts.

Yet despite a sparseness of scenery and set, there is an impressive surprise awaiting the second half. The raised platform, which denotes the stage, is lifted to reveal a shallow, white-tiled rectangle, resembling the bottom of a swimming pool. This is all that is needed to signify the stark horror of the cell and Room 101, where Winston is later physically and mentally tortured and has his face strapped to a tube containing several very hungry rats – his most unimaginable fear. But the preparation for a stage effect like this comes at a cost. Earlier in the play, when Winston and Julia are arrested in the bedroom above the curiosity shop, two black-clad party policemen abseil down from the upper rafters of the theatre. As they hook up their cables to the platform to secure it for lifting, this unfortunately distracts temporarily from the main action.

However, the Royal Exchange will always remain a first-class venue to watch a performance, particularly if you’re looking for a fresh approach on an old text. At the centre of a grand and ornate high-domed building in the middle of Manchester city centre, complete with gilt and marble columns, you stumble across a relic of the 20th century. The theatre is a circular scaffold with glass sides and primary-coloured staircases, with the stage at the very centre of the theatre space and seating completely surrounding it. The very best part in visiting this theatre is walking around the outside – usually served as café space – and seeing all the props and dressing rooms ready to be wheeled onto the stage via one of the side entrances.

The seats at the very top are some of the best, in my opinion, because not only can you observe the stage works if you choose, but you also get a completely different perspective on the play. You can still see everything that happens, and occasionally you see more. In this production, when Winston and the other workers collect their meals from the canteen you can see they are actually eating; when Julia brings a supply of forbidden foods to the bedroom she actually brews the coffee and Winston actually pierces the tin of milk, as they share a freshly baked loaf of bread. There may be an absence of set design and props but that is the very nature of this kind of theatre space. It eradicates the stage director’s volition to adorn the stage (and so distract the audience) with functionless props. Instead the production team make it their business to focus on realism and detail, such as when O’Brien plucks a tooth from Winston’s mouth and drops it to the floor.

It might be easy to say that this performance is needed now more than ever, at a time when the choice for ID cards has been made for us and we are subject to the scrutiny of a CCTV civilisation. But the interesting thing I realised when watching this performance is that 1984 is not just a warning against a totalitarian state, it is a warning against humanity, and even more it is a warning against how well we know ourselves. It is possible to become so disillusioned with law and society that we can, like Winston, begin to show a fervour that mimics the behaviour of those we rebel against. When Winston goes to visit O’Brien in the hopes of joining an underground revolution, he unreservedly agrees to carry out some appalling acts to achieve the party’s aims (such as “throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face”). Even the one act he steps down from, sacrificing Julia, (the one redeeming feature of mankind, the play pretends, is love) he eventually submits to by betraying her. And she him. The most ironic aspect is that Winston is only made aware of his own baseness by the same man who duped him into joining an underground revolution: O’Brien, who turns out to be his interrogator.

We generally consider ourselves to be a liberal society, erring to the left rather than the right. But as we know, and as 1984 tries to assert, “the object of power is power” (O’Brien), and no matter how far apart two political parties are, they inevitably meet. The furore over Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time last year can be seen in the same light (at this point I would like to stress that I am not expressing any political opinions here). The way he was hounded by our so-called liberal politicians and commentators recalled the same vitriolic repression enforced in Orwell’s dystopia. To suggest Griffin should not have appeared on the panel, and so deny that alternative insurgences exist in the UK, is no different to Winston Smith erasing the inconvenient history of Oceania in his job at the records office. In this way the performance simultaneously asks us to question the society we live in alongside the horror played out before us, yet also whether an alternative is viable, and at what cost. The moral barometer is so unbalanced that we are left wondering who represents whom, and which side of the fence would we end up on if it came down to it.

I would definitely recommend 1984 to anyone who enjoyed the book, is interested in the psychology of politics and society, and has the mental capacity to explore such scary realms of human behaviour. Equally I’d recommend it if you’ve never been to the Royal Exchange as their performances are always inspiring. As far as theatre prices go it’s middle of the road, but there are a number of concessions available and the cheap seats at the top are a winner. It might be almost three hours long but with the drama, suspense and dark humour it doesn’t feel like it.

1984 @ The Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester
24 February – 27 March 2010
Tickets £8.50 – £29.50
Variety of concessions available including government free theatre tickets for under 26s.
See website for more ticket details and performance times and to view a trailer for the show.

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