George Orwell’s viscerally powerful novel written in 1948 is sadly just as relevant as when it was first written. It looks at the obsession of the powerful with controlling the minute detail of the lives of ordinary people. Power is everything; individual voices must be silenced.
Before you tell me this is no longer relevant to our lives today look at some of the current news headlines. We still live in a world where many powerful regimes try to silence and control their own people. Intolerance always starts small.
The Sewell Barn Theatre company regularly impress me with the power of their dramatisations. They are a thoughtful, intelligent and creative bunch of people who take diverse scripts and make them into a thoroughly unique and memorable production. On this occasion they have taken their work to a new level and give us a remarkably powerful bit of theatre. The book has been adapted for the stage by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan and is directed for Sewell Barn by Ginny Porteous. Her treatment has some great details: as we take our seats we look up to a large ‘telescreen’ dominating the auditorium, then it slowly dawns on audience members that as well as a Matrix like digit array we are all on the screen too, our every move watched by Big Brother!
Jez Pike as Winston Smith is seated as we enter, considering whether to breach the rules simply by keeping a diary. In place of a narrator the adapters use the plot device of a book group discussing the novel to build the narrative thread. I can see why they chose to do this but I am not entirely comfortable as it inevitably adds much speculative dialogue to the powerful original work by Orwell. Apart from this group we see the 1984 text reduced to the essential core. Winston is a thinker, this contradicts the dictat of the ’Party’. He stumbles across Julia (Jo Parker Sessions) who presents as the most zealous of Party loyalists, to hide her inner rebelliousness. He is initially disgusted but fascinated by her when she slips him a note saying ‘I love you’. They meet furtively and clandestinely and pursue a passionate love affair.
The couple appear to find fellow rebels in the heart of the higher Party structure, to be welcomed into the rebel brotherhood, but soon find themselves imprisoned and tortured, ultimately in the notorious Room 101 where victims are forced to confront the cause of their greatest fears.
The two key roles in this play are Winston and Julia, and the performances of Jez and Jo are what make this a great drama. They both go through a lot physically on stage, as we see them range from passionate lovemaking to screaming from torture. Yep, this is a full on performance not for the squeamish, but nothing is done just for shock or effect, it’s all in Orwell’s original text. Jez Pike adds a staring intensity to the role of Winston, letting us dwell on the perennial link made between rebellion and insanity, especially by those doing the oppressing business. Jo Parker Sessions captures the book’s acute split personality of Julia the Party loyalist and Julia the wild lover.
With a cast of fourteen, of whom we only see nine on stage, this is a well ordered production where everyone competently plays their part. Two others stood out for me: Cleo Whiteley as the child had a small part but a huge impact, played with confidence and self assurance; while John Dane as the interrogator O’Brien gave us a truly scary character. I started to feel the fear in my bowels reminiscent of school days when he came close, his is a truly menacing performance.
The play is presented as one long single act, necessary to keep the tension high and the pace right, but there is no slack in this script or performance and it does not feel too long. Many audience members will know the original work so we know how the story will unwind, but there are still shocks and surprises as it unfolds. The sound design and management is very skilful and contributes to an impressive show.
This is perhaps the most important production from Sewell Barn in recent times, and you really should catch this landmark theatrical event. I wish it were not so relevant today, but if like me you get angry or depressed listening to the news just about every day you will understand that Orwell has turned a mirror on the way we allow ourselves to be ruled, an uncomfortable truth for all of us. Orwell was always an iconoclast, sooner or later he would demolish all our faiths and beliefs but that is what makes him worth the attention that he still earns. See 1984 and know why. I will be watching you!
© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 12 October 2023
1984 by Sewell Barn Theatre plays from 12-14 and 18-21 October 2023 at 7.30 pm, with a 2.30 matinée on 21 October. go to www.sewellbarn.org for more