George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel is brought disturbingly and vividly to life in this stunning Sewell Barn production.
The story is well-known: Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, making sure that the historic records match up with the Party’s version of events, while the population live under the assumption of the constant watching eye of Big Brother.
He finds an unlikely ally and lover in Julia, but their bliss is destroyed when the people they thought were part of a shadowy resistance are actually responsible for a honey-trap. The two are captured and subject to torture until they relent and learn to love Big Brother.
Using Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s 2013 adaptation, the story is told through a fractured narrative, drifting dream like in and out of an imagined future where the book is not a prediction of the future but a quasi-fictitious history of the past.
The characters are at both in the story and members of a book club discussing it, with flickering lights and power cuts providing bridges between the two unrealities.
At the heart are two Barn-storming performances, by Jez Pike as Winston and John Dane as O’Brien – the Party apparatchik and Winston’s nemesis. Pike puts his all into the portrayal, from wide-eyed confusion to brutal rage, and with an eager physicality. O’Brien in contrast is as tightly-measured as his finely-cut suit, infinitely chilling in his absurd assurances of what exists and what doesn’t.
There is a superb supporting cast too, not least Cleo Whitely as the unnamed child, switching between an officious wannabee Thought Police member and sweetly singing the nursery rhyme that serve as a repeated refrain through the story.
Jo Parker Sessions is a great foil to the manic Pike as the more playful Julia, constructing a believable romance between the two. Standing in as Symes on opening night, John Holden is deliciously twitchy and shows barely a sign of not being fully boned up for the part.
Director Ginny Porteous has corralled fantastic performances from the cast, but has also not compromised on the technical production, mixing live and recorded video and graphic effects in with fluid set changes across a non-stop two hour production. It is seamlessly pulled off by the crew, including stage manager Adrian Wenn and production technician Barney Matley.
Orwell’s novel is famed for its prescience, and it still feels (depressingly) modern nearly 40 years on from its target date and almost 80 from its creation. The constancy of war and the need for politics to find an enemy hasn’t gone away; we are more surveilled than ever and mostly sleepily complicitly, grateful for protection from the foreigner in funny shoes that could so easily be us.
This production brings those themes crashingly to life, in a brilliant – if also distressing – piece of theatre. You might not want them to watch you, but you should watch this.
- 1984 continues at Sewell Barn Theatre until October 21 2023.