George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949. Seventy years on Derby University productions have rebooted the story for the 21st Century. The undergraduates have produced every aspect of the show with the only external direction coming from co-directors, Theatre Arts Lecturer, Amanda Wallace, and Artistic Director, Sarah Brigham.
A quirk of fate sees the production taking place thirty five years after the title date, which was itself thirty five years after when it was written, in a slice of auspicious synchronicity.
The stage adaptation is by Nick Lane an actor turned director, as well as playwright. From 2006-2014 he was the Associate Director and Literary Manager of Hull Truck Theatre, a company with which he has had a long association and with whom he shares a connection with Derby Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sarah Brigham.
No production of 1984 could omit Orwell’s ubiquitous political slogans, this one uses them well. They loom all over the stage on giant screens, omnipresent, omniscient augmented by wall posters. Big Brother is everywhere. Tom Bathurst’s work as video and projection designer is impressive, the screens at various times sending out messages, watching, and live action interface in Room 101.
Chelsea Forde, is superb as Julia, the female lead in a story in which women fight to make their mark. Fey, but confident and self- assured, she draws the audience to her as surely as she lures the affections of Winston.
Director Amanda Wallace redresses the book’s gender imbalance on stage by creating a six strong female chorus of narrators, an innovative idea which works commendably in bridging the gaps between a three hundred page book and a two hour stage production. Shania Waterson stood out, providing another strong female presence. They played a vital role in injecting volume, pace, energy, jeopardy, and a visceral presence, particularly in the memorable “Five Minute Hate” sequence
Ewan McConnachie plays an intense, reflective, neurotic Winston, in a role now laden with the reality of 21st Century surveillance. It builds to a cataclysmic climax in his betrayal of Julia. His nemesis, the spy O’Brien, is memorably portrayed by Robert Boyle with sinuous malevolence.
The first act sets the scene, the second is where the narrative unfolds, the highlight of which is unquestionably Winston’s confrontation with rats in Room 101, skilfully utilising multi- media to great effect. Dominic Murray’s lighting design was monochromatic and powerful in white light. Jordan Stych’s sound sparse, but always complimentary. A single, two tier, stage set , designed by Jude Martin, functions well. The bedroom doubles into a torture chamber, a nice twist on the banning of sex – and beware naff hanging picture frames.
Costumier Emma Jayne Smith decided that any female hairstyle would do, so long as it was a blonde ponytail, a commitment which even Robert Boyle entered into. Boiler suits, and buttoned blousons created a uniform which were enormously effective visually, blending perfectly with the live action screens to chilling totalitarian effect.
Thematically the story fits perfectly into the 21st Century present .The three word slogans such as “Ignorance is strength” and “Freedom is Slavery” will be familiar to watchers of Trump, and “Build that Wall”, and Brexit with “Leave Means Leave”. Fake news abounds. Winston is coerced into declaring that four is five as nonsensically as our Parliament was recently confronted with the idea that an old deal was a new deal. The only difference being in O’Brien’s success with electric torture.
This is a hugely rewarding production. Inevitably 1984 cognoscenti will argue about the minutiae of the page to stage adaptation. The second half is more satisfying than the first, but the overall result more than does justice to the book with every member of the cast enthusiastically contributing to a weighty and substantial whole. Ends Saturday 25/ 5/19.