George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984, needs little introduction and is surely familiar to many, at the very least through its introduction of the terms Big Brother and Room 101 into the fabric of society. There have been several film and television adaptations and a poorly received operatic version which premiered at the Royal Opera in 2005.
However, a stage adaptation has been long overdue and Manchester’s Royal Exchange has taken on the challenge presenting Matthew Dunster’s adaptation as the opening to its spring season.
The story concerns Winston Smith living in 1984 where, following a global atomic war the world, the world is split into three super states, one of which is Oceania where freedom of speech and even free thought is unacceptable and the state is ruled by Big Brother who is always watching.
Smith and his illicit lover Julia embark on a rebellion against the totalitarian government and are consequently imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and re-educated eventually becoming accepting members of the regime they fought so hard against.
First and foremost in the success of a stage version of such a famous work is the adaptation of the original source and Dunster, who also directs, has excelled himself by condensing such a dramatic literary masterpiece into a logical and fast paced piece of theatre. His script makes deft use of voice over to convey the characters inner thoughts and his direction ensures that there is clarity between the characters reality and their imagination and dreams.
Dunster is ably supported by designer Paul Wills, whose stark and dank set effectively reflects the sterile and monotonous life of the masses. His physical scenery also, at times, is a clever reflection on the spoken text.
Excellent use is made of the Royal Exchange’s flying facilities and the slick scene changes are a triumph of collaboration between director and designer. Philip Cladwell also scores success in his lighting design which serves to enhance the atmosphere.
Of the cast there is not a weak link and mentioning everyone is impossible. However, of particular note is Matthew Flynn as O’Brien, a major player in the thought police whose initial understated performance grows into one of power and dominance during some disturbing scenes in Act Two. Paul Moriarty also impresses as Goldstein and his second act lecture raging against the totalitarian and authoritarian way of society fully deserves the mid performance applause it is granted.
Julia, is played by Caroline Bartlett in her professional debut and whilst her inexperience is apparent amongst some more seasoned professionals, this never detracts from the confident and enthusiastic portrayal of her character. The ensemble is made up of students from the local universities and they apply themselves well showing versatility and professionalism.
But stealing the show in a truly great performance as the protagonist of the story Winston Smith, is Jonathan McGuinness. His performance is one that is surely worthy of a nod in the next Manchester Evening News theatre awards.
It is a brave decision for the Royal Exchange to open their current season with such a dark and disturbing work, but it’s a decision that pays off, as their 1984 is a tremendous gripping, tour-de-force of dramatic theatre.