As an English student, I have often been shamed for my appalling failure to read Orwell’s classic novel. Thankfully, after watching this production I feel I no longer need to; rather, I think I could at least hold my own in a conversation about it. Feather Theatre Company’s production of 1984 effectively draws its audience into Orwell’s terrifying and twisted dystopian world of surveillance and espionage, as the insurgent Winston is interrogated in the ominous Room 101 by an ensemble of party members assembled on stage around him, who throughout the play take on different characters from Winston’s diary. Considering the difficulties this production has faced with multiple people stepping into the cast in only the last few days, the cast and crew should be applauded for delivering a masterful and emotional performance which recreated a well-known story in a recognisable and yet original way.
Co-directors Harry Jenkins and Jenny Shpeter and assistant director Sean Alcock’s intelligent staging decision to keep all five main cast members onstage throughout not only allowed the show to flow effortlessly but provided a constant presence of observation. The grey office chairs created a corporate feeling, although the decision to have the actors stand on them did cause me a great deal of stress. Winston, played by Aaron Rozanski, remains confined in the centre of the stage, and his desperate entreaties directly aimed at the audience made us feel uncomfortably complicit in his interrogation.
A chilling clinical atmosphere is effectively created with the white backdrop and LEDs projecting onto flats at the back of the stage. The lighting and sound design is generally excellent, with the actors’ interaction with a disembodied voice and the harsh white lights of the interrogation cell in the Ministry of Love contrasting with the warm spotlight on Rozanski during Winston’s dream episodes. However, I thought the staging was too static, and some decisions in blocking such as staging one interaction off the stage down on audience level felt slightly arbitrary. I would have liked to see better use made of the stage to delineate the different locations in the narrative, which may also have helped to make the plot slightly clearer.
Rozanski’s flawless portrayal of Winston carries the production, as the raw and genuine desperation he brings to the character makes the audience sympathise with him despite Winston’s unlikable qualities. Some of my favourite moments are Rozanski’s monologues in the dream sequences where his almost childish hopefulness rises to a fever pitch, giving the audience a glint of optimism before we are harshly jerked back to reality. His performance in the torture sequences feels skin-crawlingly real and visceral to the point of discomfort.
There is also skilled multi-rolling demonstrated by members of the ensemble, with Richard Sharpe and Sean Alcock particularly standing out in their ability to move between portraying children, bumbling co-workers, and fellow inmates. John Duffett as O’Brian brings a sadistic and unnerving joy to his role. Charlie Howe is earnest in his portrayal of Winston at an earlier stage, and Adela Hernandez Derbyshire portrays a sincere and forthright Julia, although there were occasionally issues with her projection. While the cast mostly delivers the rapid-fire lines with slick precision, I did feel at some points lines were being delivered too quickly to the point of becoming garbled. There were also issues with projection over music and occasionally extended periods with multiple characters shouting made it difficult to understand the words.
The decision in the final scene to cover Winston’s head seemed very strange to me; the prop looked tacky, and it meant we lost the actor’s face at a crucial moment in the climax. Despite this, the acting and directorial vision were generally very strong. 1984 had me on the edge of my seat at multiple moments and provides a riveting and thought-provoking night of theatre.
Image: Feather Theatre Company