1984

George Orwell
Haymarket, Leicester
(2003)

With Britain and the United States on the brink of war, CCTV cameras monitoring our every move and Government spin doctors bending the truth to manipulate the news agenda, now seems as good a time as any for a revival of Orwell's dystopian classic.

But producing a stage spectacular to convey the grim atmosphere of Orwell's masterpiece must be even more difficult than it was for the author to predict how life would be 35 years after the novel was written.

Northern Stage Ensemble, in a co-production with Derby Playhouse, have come up with an ambitious, multimedia experience which doesn't stick too closely to the original as it portrays a frightening, violent picture of life under Big Brother.

Rumblings (of discontent?) are heard from the moment you enter the auditorium which build to a crescendo as the performance gets under way. The first images you see are not as Orwell starts the book - "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen" - but cinematic images of the central character Winston Smith in a snow-covered Russia.

Many people have interpreted Russia under Stalin as the underlying theme of more than one of Orwell's novels. Co-director Mark Murphy, who concentrated on the film work for 1984, shot the footage in Moscow and to a lesser extent Newcastle, a master stroke as the black-and-white, barren surroundings of modern-day Russia reflect the tone of Orwell's opus.

Alan Lyddiard, who adapted the novel and worked with the performers, succeeds in the Ensemble's aim of re-creating Orwell's cold, oppressive, inhuman world.

Neil Murray's design entails the film clips being projected onto two large screens which ingeniously open up and move around for the various scenes. The changes are slick and quickly executed, never allowing the tension to wane.

The first third of the 95-minute production - which benefits by not having an interval - has Winston working in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting the past to suit the needs of The Party. It is only when he falls in love with fellow- worker Julia that the production becomes more than one-dimensional, their feelings for one another and lack of respect for authority contrasting with the emotionless existence experienced by those under the control of the ruling regime.

Craig Conway is a stunning Winston, presenting a powerful performance as he moves through the various stages of rebellion until he is tortured into submission. His pain when he endures electric shock treatment near the end of the play is particularly harrowing and convincing.

Samantha Cooper brings a refreshing vitality to the role of Julia while Mark Calvert is a detached O'Brien whose brutality appears as natural as his loyalty.

John Alder's music is continually menacing, adding immeasurably to the overall aura of violence, fear and foreboding while Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Bach's St Matthew Passion could almost have been written for 1984.

Sometimes the action on screen detracts from what is happening for real. But there are certain elements which would have been lost on stage which come to life in the magnified version.

Purists will no doubt baulk at this version of 1984. But it's an effective, modern-day portrayal of a sadistic society towards which we are unconsciously and uncontrollably heading.

1984 tours to Newcastle Playhouse from March 19th to 22nd and at The Hexagon, Reading from March 25th to 29th.

Reviewer: Steve Orme