Adam Taub after George Orwell
Manchester Central Library, Manchester
Manchester Central Library offers a range of services, some of which have ambiguous titles. The staff of The Human Lending Library must get fed up with jokers asking to borrow a human.
The Woolston Reading Room on the other hand does exactly what it says on the tin. A large circular room with bookshelves lining the walls and tables with individual reading lamps, its purpose is obvious. Prior to the Internet, the room was used by students for research so books and bound newspapers would be ordered from a central podium and delivered by creaking trollies to the desks. Now the podium is unstaffed but the academic atmosphere of reverence remains; facilitated by the dome-like roof that brings to mind a cathedral.
Tonight and every Friday and Saturday evening until 14 December 2019, the Reading Room is one of the spaces in the Library used to stage an immersive version of George Orwell’s 1984. The room is turned into an Assessment Centre where candidates are judged as to their suitability to join the Ministry of Truth. The hushed atmosphere is perfect for this purpose and director Joe Hufton adds to the tension with the simple provision of a ticking clock.
As with all immersive theatre, the success of 2084 is dependent upon the willingness of the audience to take part and play the roles they are assigned.
Orwell wrote 1984 just after the end of the Second World War and used the futuristic setting to comment upon his present-day society. Adam Taub, who adapted the book into 2084, takes the same approach updating the text to make reference to contemporary concerns. Thus, the repressive regime led by Big Brother came to power after an environmental catastrophe. The Orwellian Doublespeak is tweaked to reflect the speech patterns of certain modern politicians. When a hero falls from grace and is censored from the history books, he is replaced by an ‘alternative hero’.
The audience is supposed to be applying for jobs as spies and tell-tales and director Hufton makes sure that even before we enter the Assessment Centre there is the chance to snoop on the lives of the characters. The audience assemble in a candle-lit café with a torch singer belting out standards and it is possible to notice the actors playing Winston Smith and Julia make their first assignation—bumping into each other and exchanging messages. Later treasonous meetings between the couple are observed either on-screen or by peeking through blinds.
There is a speaking cast of three (Marie Sam Newman, Richard Hahlo and Hannah Hoad), with other silent actors adding to the atmosphere of intimidation. An issue with immersive theatre is that the need for the audience to move from place to place breaks the mood. This is less of a problem with 2084 as the shadowed spaces in the gothic library building are decidedly spooky. With the exception of the chief investigator (unnamed but Orwell called him O’Brien), the cast wear anonymous utilitarian boiler suits. O’Brien alone is suited and booted and rather than a brutal torturer is aloof but superficially avuncular—like a headteacher confronting a pupil who has made disappointing choices.
2084 avoids the limitations associated with immersive theatre and makes excellent use of an unusual venue to give an absorbing but disturbing version of a classic story.
Reviewer: David Cunningham