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THEATRE REVIEW: 1984/Manchester Royal Exchange

Joan Davies admires, applauds and wants you all go to the Royal Exchange

Published on March 3rd 2010.

THEATRE REVIEW: 1984/Manchester Royal Exchange

THIS is pure theatre. Complete theatre. Go.

The Royal Exchange opens its new season with George Orwell’s novel 1984. Adapted and directed by Oldham-born Matthew Dunster the production, as expected, is brutal and challenging while confidently delivering the intellectual coherence, horror and humanity within Orwell’s vision.

Rarely does theatre treat us to such an extensive and unemotional political analysis, let alone in one speech. It’s a brave decision. Moriarty holds the attention with pace, timing and clarity.

Winston Smith, a citizen of Oceania, is employed to rewrite history for the Ministry of Truth. History can have a habit of being inconvenient for totalitarians. Smith appears to conform to state requirements, engaging in hate rallies, cheering victories in an everlasting war and praising Big Brother, yet secretly, very secretly, he harbours doubts and dissension.

One day, Julia, whom he hardly knows, hands him a note which simply says, ‘I love you’. This leads Winston to embark on a life of rebellion, of love and of hope. Yet from the beginning the hope is only an illusion.

Theatre adaptations of novels are forced to concentrate on some aspects and skirt others. What is surprising here is the breadth and depth of the exploration of possibilities of tyranny and its fight against the human spirit.

The clarity of the adaptation, a coherent creative approach, superb acting and a strong team of supporting extras and scene-shifters make for a powerful piece of theatre faithful to the original novel. It engages the audience both emotionally and intellectually, tells a human story and asks you to look again at the methods we use to protect our societies from threats, real or imagined.

Jonathan McGuinness as Winston in 1984 by George Orwell, adapted by Matthew Dunster (Royal Exchange Theatre 24 February - 27 March). Photo - Jonathan Keenan...

And it’s no easy task.

Terrifying iconic images from Orwell’s original work, Big Brother and Room 101, have in our age been neutered for light entertainment, and CCTV everywhere is used as reassurement rather than threat.

The first act is magnificently paced, introducing the realities of domestic, working and political life for the Oceania’s middle and lower classes before developing the plot. The second act is horrific; the torture scenes brutal, extensive.

Most of the creative team have worked together before, notably on Macbeth. Paul Willis’s design turns the round stage into a stark rectangle representing a post-war England, drab, shabby and depleted, interspersed with flashes of spirit and stoicism and glimpses into an easier period of history through memories held in dreams and knick-knacks. By contrast the second-act torture chamber, “the place where there is no darkness”, glares unremittingly and washes away its history, allowing the darkness in the human soul to be fully revealed. Philip Gladwell and Ian Dickinson direct intricate lighting and sound with precision and imagination. Choreography from Aline David and fight direction by Kate Waters keep the pace moving, the action realistic, and the tension almost unrelenting.

Jonathan McGuinness produces a superb physically-demanding performance as the unlikely hero Winston Smith, at first just an ordinary individual, someone you’d hardly notice, but who grows in stature as love and rebellion embolden him.

Jamie de Courcey conveys Syme’s fondness for the destruction of words with real relish employing the demeanour, accent and confidence we would expect from one successfully expanding our vocabulary rather than shrinking it.

Matthew Flynn plays O’Brien, a confident member of the inner-party, in whom Winston and his new found love place their trust. As the first act ends you’re not quite sure whether their trust is justified. You find out in the second act, where Flynn’s excellent performance is one among many.

The young actor Caroline Barleet plays Julia with an interesting combination of sexual experience and naïve charm: a physically confident performance from an actor early in her career.

The serious political analysis necessary to do justice to Orwell’s work is ever present but its main impact rests on the shoulders of Paul Moriarty. Rarely does theatre treat us to such an extensive and unemotional political analysis, let alone in one speech. It’s a brave decision. Moriarty holds the attention with pace, timing and clarity.

Orwell’s novel was written in 1948. The title was arrived at by a simple reversal of the year. What we really got in 1984 was the birth of Prince Harry, Torvill and Dean winning Olympic Gold in a peaceful Sarajevo, and the start of the miners’ strike.

Jonathan McGuinness as Winston in 1984 by George Orwell, adapted by Matthew Dunster (Royal Exchange Theatre 24 February - 27 March). Photo - Jonathan Keenan

This brave, challenging, coherent production which succeeds through a combination of strong teamwork and individual brilliance will prompt many a rereading of Orwell’s classic and more than a brief reflection on what it might reveal about our current condition.

Once more and with feeling, if you like theatre that's powerful, that sticks in the mind, take in this superb Royal Exchange event as soon as you can

Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre launches its new Spring – Summer 2010 Season with the world premiere of 1984 – an electrifying new stage version of George Orwell’s nightmare vision of a totalitarian society - from Wednesday 24 February to Saturday 27 March.

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Peter Coyle

i wish i had been there…it sounds like something joyous and anarchic...the way the article is…

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Couldn't agree more. This is a super piece. Ken would be proud that not a penny of public money was…

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Reader Xxx

The review was indeed brilliant - congratulations Angie. The show must have been very special -…

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Claudia Boulton

Thanks Angie for your brilliant piece, so glad you wrote it! Now i know what was going on! Being in…

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