The Feather Theatre Company’s production of 1984 is an intensive, horrifying glimpse into the dystopian land of George Orwell’s nightmare state. It is dark, it is cynical, it will destroy your soul just a little bit, but you need to experience it.
For the sorry few of you unfamiliar with Orwell’s novel 1984, it is set in a dystopian Britain, known as Airstrip One, a state in constant war, run by a totalitarian, hierarchical governmental system, where every citizen is under constant surveillance. Winston Smith is a hard working member of the Outer Party, who through his own somewhat amoral work in the Ministry of Truth has become disillusioned with the Party and Big Brother. As his love affair with Julia, a new worker in his department, progresses, his hatred of the regime becomes more and more intense, culminating in fatal, personal revolution.
As always, staging in the Empty Shop space presents a challenge. The audience filed in to a stage surrounded by 5 screens flashing party slogans. The set design was artistically symbolic. Simple, the main feature being the prominent screens, the barren emptiness of the new age was carefully mapped on the left of the stage, whilst a tiny recluse of the past, of hope for resistance or rebellion, existed in the far right corner in the form of the mattress and a selection of antiques (a space that would serve as Mr Charrington’s shop). Throughout the performance, the audience witnesses as that space, along with their hope of victory for Winston and Julia, is extinguished, the entire stage becoming an empty, chilling Room 101 at the turn of a mattress.
The stage, unusually for Empty Shop performances, ran down the length of the room, meaning the acting space was wide and thin. The mere three rows of audience depth created a proximity to the actors that was both disconcerting and hypnotic. Matthew Green’s direction exploited this near uncomfortable intimacy to great effect. Scenes such as the Hate and the lover’s first meeting happened at such close quarters that every twitch of facial muscle and sideways glance were visible. However, the length of the stage and the lack of leveling resulted in unavoidable limitations in view for audience members in the far corners or back row. Floor scenes, such as the lovers on their mattress, or subtleties such as Julia passing Winston her love note, were invisible depending on where you were sitting.
Close proximity acting leaves no place to hide and no room for mistakes. The cast demonstrated a phenomenal level of commitment and skill. Mathew Chalmers, who played Winston, gave an incredibly physical and challenging performance. The expressions of growing disillusionment and hatred of the Party juxtaposed his obedience and early dialogue. It takes a skilled actor to pull off a torture scene, especially one so close to the audience, and the screams of Chalmers, and the image of his dripping blood, gave me gruesome nightmares.
Charlotte Phipps playing Julia was a fitting contrast to the tempestuous extremities of Winston. More a voice of resistance than revolution, her soft spoken, sexual escape from the Party oppression was admirably portrayed, given the front row audience members were less than an arm’s length away from her seduction of Winston. The chemistry between the couple was palpable, their charged dialogue bringing life to the deeper politics and philosophy of the script.
From his first entrance, Luke Titmuss playing O’Brian brought a subtle authority that conquers the stage space. His quick transitions from faceless Inner Party member, to rebel leader, to torturer, were seamless. The intricacies of his acting, such as his almost paternal caressing of Winston’s hair during his torture sessions, brought a complexity, depth and frightening realism to the face of oppression.
Last but not least, Ali Linney deserves special mention for the screen displays that, in combination with the loud sounds and flashing strobe lights, recreated for the audience the subliminal terror of the dystopian world. The haunting end scene is very much the result of the screens sequence of flashing war images and slogans juxtaposing the serenity of the smiling figure of a broken Winston, and the crooning voice of Dame Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
‘1984’ will be performing until Mon 24 Nov in the Empty Shop, Durham. There are more performances scheduled for early next year.
Image: Ali Linney