George Orwell's allegory is 'a deceptively challenging story to adapt'
The stage set at the Crescent Arts Centre is simple, flanked by red banners: a wall of flickering televisions as background. Later, a table, two chairs and a bed with a red sheet will be added. While we wait for the play to start we listen to an aural landscape of Brian Eno-like synthesiser music, staccato but almost warm, foreshadowing the ersatz emotions the Party supplies the inhabitants of Oceania with.
'To me, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel about the past and the present. Orwell wrote fact,' writes director Patsy Hughes in the programme of this Green Room production. The audience that flocks to the sold-out show is youngish and hip. No wonder, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has always been something of a favourite for dorm room socialists. Written in 1948 as a satire of the world of then, it’s often said that its predictions have come true today.
If so, it’s a world we have largely created by choice: we daydream of meadows but never really take the time to venture outside the city; we rush to put our personal details on Facebook and don’t worry about who can see them; we relinquish more and more of our control and privacy to communication networks we in turn have little control over.
Indeed, one audience member just has to be reachable by phone during the play, and behind us we hear the tap-tap of thumbs on little phone buttons.
The play itself gets off to a strong start in establishing the daily routines of anti-hero Winston Smith (Philip Bunting) in the totalitarian state of Oceania. When he examines his 'reflection' first thing in the morning, he's facing the audience as though we are the mirror. This use of the fourth wall is very effective, as it is when Big Brother is worshipped and arch-nemesis Goldstein booed: we can hardly resist glancing over our shoulders.
After doing his exercises under the watchful eye of an on-screen instructor, Winston wheels in a little table with some papers and an old-fashioned tape recorder. It seems his job is to edit news items to bring them in line with the current party doctrine – one day they're at war with Eurasia, the next with Eastasia and have always been.
In Orwell's novel, this is one of the many telling examples of the extent to which the State exercises its control, but in the play it’s brushed over too quickly for the audience to grasp the significance. Winston, afraid to act on his feelings of dissent, scrawls in a diary and shouts out, for the benefit of the audience: 'Down with Big Brother!'
Clothed in smudged coveralls, Smith’s gestures are hurried, jerky, reminding us of a slightly sped up silent movie, perhaps Metropolis but with a definite touch of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. When his fellow rebel and lover Julia (Déarbhail Carr) makes her appearance, this idea of the silent cinema is strengthened, her kohl-lined eyes emphasising the expressiveness of her face.
Their affair and their rebellion are those of adolescents playing truant from school, going to the park or an empty house with a bottle of booze – their ideology that of student union socialism. No wonder they are so easily taken in by upper party honcho, O’Brien (Andy Moore - on screen), who confesses being a rebel too.
When O'Brien asks them whether they're 'prepared to give their lives, to commit murder, to forge, to blackmail, even to throw sulphuric acid in a child's face if it would somehow serve the interests of the rebel party', they are youth enthralled by the Cause.
This has deep local resonance, and while people of many times and places have found a significance to their own struggles in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it seems particularly timely that this play is being performed here and now, spoken in Northern Irish accents. The city Winston and Julia live in can't help but resemble the Belfast of 1984, when a cause, however spurious and misguided, was attractive to people coming of age against a backdrop of struggle, hopelessness and boredom.
While Winston wants to change the world, Julia is clearly in it for the thrill. When Winston presents her with rebel icon Goldstein’s banned book, she tells Winston 'You read it, then tell me the best bits'. But her attention wanders, and so does ours, with the focus on ideology rather than the personal.
When Winston's fatal phobia about rats comes up, we know from the book that as a child he saw his baby sister being gnawed at by vermin. The play, in an all too severe cutting of the text, misses this and other opportunities to get deeper into Winston’s psyche and to illustrate the world he lives in.
Further opportunities are missed when O’Brien’s resistance organisation is revealed as a trap to catch dissenters. When a voice in their hideout booms 'You are the dead!' we wish that voice had come from the fourth wall, and that Winston and Julia were facing us, their shock of being discovered making way for the realization that a fate worse than death lies in store for them – they would be made un-persons, they would join the ranks of the Disappeared, they would no longer exist.
Similarly problematic is what happens next to Winston in his captivity. Standing straight, feet balanced on two chairs and with his arms outstretched, it takes a while before we understand that he is being tortured. With no O’Brien physically present to both punish and comfort, the moment when Winston betrays his lover ('Do it to Julia!') never quite feels real.
Some makeup might have helped, but it’s the static staging that severely hampers the actor in doing his job. He is further let down by the lighting momentarily transforming him into a black shape, enabling us to imagine the worst torture Room 101 can have in store for Smith, but then full on again, revealing a Smith who screams his head off with nary a rat in sight.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a deceptively challenging story to adapt. It has so many elements that it becomes paramount to choose which story to tell and how this can best be done. The Northern Irish resonance could have been made more of in this Green Room production, and the world itself made more believable had the editor's knife been a little less sharp.
Further confusion could have been avoided by a clear and purposeful staging – simplicity is one thing, but there’s no sense in not having your actors leave the stage if that means an unidentified character has to break into the play to bring on a prop.
When Julia and Winston meet again at the end of the play, the actors manage to redeem the less than powerful preceding scenes in an affecting coda: two broken people, confessing to each other their mutual betrayal, but each ready to join in the two-minute Hate with gusto, like a good party member.
Almost for the first time during the whole play we really feel for Julia and Winston, when her gaze refuses to settle on anything solid, and his eyes film over with tears.