Emily Grant reviews ‘1.9.8.4’, in Venue 1, St Andrews, 12 March 2012

Rating: 3.5/5

1984 admittedly isn’t one of the first books that pops into my mind when I think of works that would translate onto the stage. The world that Orwell creates is as fascinating as it is horrifying but a lot of the book involves the protagonist, Winston Smith, writing his thoughts into a journal.  My concerns were unfounded. Though there were a few hiccups in the running of the play, 1.9.8.4 ended up being a wonderfully eerie experience.

For starters, the conversion of the book was very well done. As I mentioned above, I was dubious about how the translation of such an introverted, thoughtful novel would work. But Joseph Cunningham dealt with it admirably. He isolated a lot of the journal scenes to the first bit of the play, setting a base for the play and remaining loyal to Orwell’s narrative element before moving to more active scenes. Winston would sit at his desk off on one side of the stage, writing in his journal and reading it aloud in a quick, stream-of-consciousness type way. While this was going on, the centre of the stage was dominated by a group of uniformed, sunglass-wearing party members. Though mostly they just stood there, which was honestly intimidating enough, they also acted out things that Winston mentions in his journal, like the ‘group hate’ and his desire to rape Julia.

Venue 1 worked perfectly for the play. Instead of using the actual stage of Venue 1, which cramps a lot of plays, 1.9.8.4 decided to make use of the venue’s expansive wooden floor. This, coupled with the very sparse use of props, set an appropriately minimalistic set that carried the Orwellian sense of alienation and depersonalisation before the play even started. Though this was excellent artistically, the larger set meant longer, often noisy, gaps between scene changes that did throw off the mood a bit. I also had issue with the crackling announcements from the government that penetrated scenes now and again; they were cool, but almost impossible to decipher over the crackling audio effects at times.

It was easy to forgive these flaws, however as soon as the scenes began again. The use of glasses to symbolise allegiance to the party (‘rose-coloured glasses’) was brilliant when it came to visuals. The first scene especially was very poignant; while Winston wrote in his journal off to the side of the stage, party members stood on stage. Their depersonalised staring was jarring enough, but I actually jumped a little in my seat when they started the ‘group hate’ in which they screamed at the audience.

Alex Levine made an appropriately thoughtful and pacing Winston, but in the end it was Ben Wallo who stole the show particularly after the intermission, when his monologues dominated. It was easy to see how things could have gone wrong with O’Brien; it takes a strong actor to behave like such a sociopath while trying to make pages upon pages of brainwashing sound justified. But Wallo did it well. Everything from his snide tone to the conviction that he put behind absurdities like ‘two and two is four’ was flawless. Emily Salt created a Julia that, alongside such strong fellow leads, would have been fairly forgettable if she didn’t keep stripping. In all fairness, however, this is pretty much the extent of Julia’s role in Orwell’s version as she represents a physical, not mental, commitment to the rebellion, so Salt portrays her character effectively.

There were a few things in the book that the play was missing that I would have liked to see, though I understand that time restraints are a factor in play and movie adaptations. The proles, the lower caste in Big Brother’s society, are mentioned a few times, but the play doesn’t really have any of the scenes from the book where Winston interacts with the proles. It seemed a little weak to mention them but not show them. Though I felt like this would have improved the play, I can understand the difficulties in showing such scenes, one of which involves Winston’s memories of sex with an ageing prole prostitute.

Though it had a few minor flaws, I really enjoyed 1.9.8.4, both in adaptation and presentation. It was executed well and has enough from the book to entertain even the greatest Orwell fan, but held its own without the book so that those who have never read 1984 could enjoy it as well.

 

Emily Grant

Image credits – Emily Grant