1984

Wed 8th – Sat 11th May 2013

reviews

Kate Strange

at 10:04 on 9th May 2013

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It’s been hard to miss the posters for 1984 that have been appearing around Oxford over the last few weeks. A stern face, shaded in red and cast in shadows, stares straight ahead, one eye replaced with a CCTV camera aimed at passersby. Expect the same dark directness in this production of 1984, based on George Orwell’s novel and adapted for the stage by Matthew Dunster. Exceptionally strong performances, inspired direction and creative production come together to make a performance that is simultaneously outstanding and disturbing.

Omnipresent throughout the dystopian vision we are presented with is the telescreen, the device which functions as both television and surveillance camera for the constantly-watched inhabitants . Looming huge behind the stage, the telescreen provides an opportunity for the production to display their inventiveness in meshing together video with the acting on stage, as grainy black and white war propaganda and flickering images of Big Brother’s face set the tone and provide the backdrop to the militaristic movements on stage. The ten cast members form a hugely disciplined ensemble, their precision of movement and timing creating a powerful sense of the depersonalized collective they have been reduced to. It’s at once chilling, and highly effective.

The company as a whole are clearly well rehearsed, with the real sense that they are moving as one and are highly aware of each other’s presence. Florence Brady in particular was impressive in her ability to move between her multiple roles quickly and confidently, often at her strongest when portraying the cold, disinterested brutality at the heart of the world of 1984. It’s Harley Viveash, as central character and everyman Winston Smith however, who is really exceptional. It’s a punishing and demanding role, with Viveash on stage for the entirety of the two and a half hour show, but his energy never dips and he is nothing less than utterly convincing.

It is in the second half particularly that he is really able to display the range and subtleties of his acting, as we see him utterly stripped back in order to be rebuilt as the Party want him to be. A moment in which Winston is confronted with his reflection in the mirror after months of torture is the most affecting and powerful of the play – if you saw this scene alone, you’d still feel the ticket price was still more than worth it.

Alice Porter as Julia was also terrific, making her role feel fresh and vibrant, and thus demonstrating on an individual level the main strength of the production as a whole. With such well-known source material, there is a danger that the play could feel overly familiar – but director Luke Rollason never appears to be overwhelmed by expectations of what the 1984 world has looked like in previous versions and incarnations, leaving him free to create a work that feels exciting and new. There are parallels drawn between Orwell’s horrific vision of the future, and the world we now inhabit, such as the CCTV cameras surrounding the stage on all sides, but these suggestions remain subtle and are never forced.

Minor issues with a wobbly camp bed aside, this was a near flawless production. Frederick Bowerman seemed prone to rather ‘actorly’ delivery and gestures, which was a shame and something of a distraction in a show that focused primarily on storytelling. But the total effect of the acting and production was usually very impressive, and overall this was an exceptionally strong show which provided an immersive and fascinating experience. The audience’s stunned silence on leaving the theatre seemed evidence enough.

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Francesca McCoy

at 10:27 on 9th May 2013

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I’m sure I can still faintly hear a disconcerting buzz of static. Is it real or am I imagining things? How can I tell what is real? I don’t know anymore. Right now, I couldn’t promise you that two and two equals four…

I’m not drunk (honest). Instead, I’ve just witnessed Rough-Hewn’s production of 1984 and feel as though I’ve been brainwashed alongside Winston. You’ll understand how this is possible the moment you enter the Keble O’Reilly theatre – through a pulsating tunnel of black and red. Here you are introduced to that static buzz, which stays with you as you sit and watch the rest of the audience enter on flickering television screens – and their reactions as they are faced with the lone, fidgeting figure seated in the middle of the room.

This is Winston (Harly Viveash) and the nervy jerkiness we are first confronted with is impressively maintained over 140 minutes. Viveash’s cringing might not endear him to the audience, but then Winston is hardly a likeable hero. Torn between grudging pity and mild revulsion, I watched Viveash writhe with the same discomfort with which I’d followed Winston through Orwell’s dystopian novel.

Discomfort plays the most consistent part by far in this production. And I’m not sure that it’s always intentional. The rapid transitions between scenes without any clear indication where one has ended often leaves the audience slightly disoriented. As do the ambiguous character transformations: Florence Brady in particular adopts so many roles that it’s not always obvious to any but the most dedicated of readers who she is currently meant to be. Actually, the confusion this caused seemed to me an added bonus; lending to the performance an Orwellian sense that anyone can be replaced at any time without warning.

A first night with this much choreography and stage movement is bound to have a few slip ups. Movement director Anja Meinhardt has the cast enter marching in military synchronization, and inevitably one or two performers are out of time. Indeed, the precision timing demanded of the performers throughout the play is of such a high level that I’m not sure that the mistakes will be confined to the first showing. The same goes for the set-ups of each new scene. It became obvious after ten minutes that the central prop of the camp bed is actually just a bit too long to fit comfortably on the platform; and every time Winston and Julia (Alice Porter) flung themselves up on it I was convinced the whole thing was about to collapse into a farce. With eleven actors, sometimes almost all of whom are on set whilst that camp bed is being manoeuvred on and off, confusion and collision seems just waiting to strike.

The second half, occupied predominantly by just Winston and O’Brien (Freddie Bowerman), had a much smoother appearance. Bowerman has a wonderfully inhuman quality which, accompanying his melodious tones, had the audience quickly falling under Big Brother’s spell. Viveash’s portrayal of a torture victim was similarly hypnotic: the members of the audience I could see across the room looked almost as distressed as if they too were being electrocuted.

Then the rat scene. This is certainly one of Viveash’s most spectacular performances: his portrayal of Winston’s black panic is so ghastly, set against the overwhelming soundtrack of rats chattering, that it’s a relief when the whole room is suddenly thrown into an engulfing darkness and silence.

Let’s face it, you’re not going to leave 1984 overwhelmed with optimism and a joy of life. But if you did, Rough-Hewn would have failed miserably in portraying Orwell’s nightmare vision. The highly stylized setting and choreography adds a slick twist to the horribly mundane world of 1984. This slickness might be found jarring by dedicatees of the novel - but it shines a wickedly dark new light on Orwell’s dystopia which fits its stage performance disconcertingly well.

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