Moments such as the "two minutes hate" scene "fell pretty flat"Christian Longstaff with permission for Varsity

1984, a cautionary tale of a dystopian future, has had many lives. This production seeks to locate the dystopia in the present day — a noble goal, but incoherent delivery and misplaced directorial ambition ultimately lead to its undoing.

The show is anchored by incredible performances from Rob Monteiro (Winston), Joe Pattison (O’Brien) and Irisa Kwok (Julia) that demonstrated carefully thought-out characterisation. In a play that often felt rushed, Kwok stood out in her embrace of silence, leaving pauses which added to Julia’s mesmerising air of seduction and forbidden charm. Pattison’s characterisation was equally spectacular, oozing the charisma and malice necessary to dominate every moment on stage. Monteiro, meanwhile, perfected the progression in Winston’s character. From the moment you enter, his existing presence on stage demonstrated mastery over facial expressions, his furrowed brow capturing the anguish of a tortured government official. By the end of the show, his blank expressions, empty behind the eyes yet riddled with mindless laughter, captured the seemingly illogical emotions of those perceived as insane.

“As the show went on, structural congruence improved”

While the level of intensity in characterisation worked at certain moments, its persistence throughout the show led to the pacing feeling off. The first half hour was an episodic flurry of short scenes which lacked any sense of coherence. The incidental bursts of intensity, with moments of screaming, flashing lights, and high physical energy, seemed disjointed and unexplained. Whilst we fully acknowledge the script’s intention of creating a scattered network of fast-paced snapshots, this production lacked the sharpness necessary to achieve its full, chilling effect.

As the show went on, structural congruence improved as individual scenes and lines were repeated, creating a cumulative eeriness which blurred authentic memory with a chronologically-disturbed sense of deception. The musical motif drawn from the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ was particularly hypnotic. At first sung by the characters on stage, the melody gradually grew in scale to take on a life of its own; sound designer Ewan Woods and composer Stan Hunt did a fantastic job of constructing a blaring soundscape as its climax. But other ambitious technical and directorial choices, such as setting the “two minutes hate” scene as a rave, with techno music and strobe lighting, fell pretty flat. The scene seemed to misunderstand the fundamentally liberatory nature of raves and their history, such as for queer liberation.

There are many other areas where Longstaff’s direction leaves much to be desired. Winston and Julia’s love story is an integral part of any rendition of 1984 and an area which Longstaff wanted to embrace. The couple, however, lacked chemistry in their performance, with blocking in their scenes feeling imbalanced, seeming to ignore that the other was onstage. The pair fumbled clumsily to make out, to declare love, to indulge in chocolate, to run off together to the countryside, and to rebel against a politically and ideologically dictatorial system. Their chemistry reminded us not of a love so powerful they would die for each other, but of a pair who are together purely for self-centred escapism. This ends up cheapening the narrative and dampening the significance of Winston’s betrayal in Room 101.

“The show is anchored by incredible performances”

This misplaced directorial ambition extends to the costuming. Characters are dressed with no consistency, as is usually the case in a production of 1984. The costumes showcased current fashion’s preferences for a variety of niche aesthetics and colours: characters wear a pink blazer, a black hoodie and one wears coloured laces. While we admire the bravery to buck the conventions of what 1984 ‘should’ look like, it creates an atmosphere of anti-conformity that took us out of the world of the show. Given that the play makes multiple references to a man who is reported to the authorities for wearing ‘funny shoes’, why the actors on stage are then dressed with such incoherence makes little sense.

Longstaff wants to ask (per his director’s note) “what about the world as it currently is now has been lost to government control?“, and how much consumerism in particular keeps us subdued against the government. The use of saturated colours and TV screens on every corner, intended to keep people submissive and ignorant, embodied this aesthetically. But a dystopia where rampant consumerism oppresses us, with its skyscrapers and oversaturated colour, already exists in cyberpunk — a genre about how overconsumption and individualism breeds an oppressive system created by nihilism. 1984, though, is not about freedom crumbling through nihilism as cyberpunk is: it’s about freedom being deliberately crushed by men like O’Brien. It is less about the collective seduction of a population, and more about middle-class intellectuals who are seduced by greater power. What allows the party to survive is the constant consent of men like O’Brien and that is what allows Orwell’s novel to be so timeless; no matter when in time you are, there will always be people like O’Brien.


Mountain View

‘Where we are now’: '1984' doesn’t see Orwell’s novel as a distant or cautionary tale

Overall, whilst the show is anchored by strong performances and interesting sound design, it ultimately fails to capture the essence of the masterpiece that is 1984. This is what makes the production so frustrating; new interpretations of old classics can be incredibly thought-provoking. There is a moment towards the end of the play when O’Brien sits amongst the audience and the true potential of the show was briefly realised — because in a place like Cambridge especially, the next O’Brien might well be sitting next to us. It’s a shame then that this production falls so short of its potential.

1984 is showing at the Corpus Playroom from Tuesday 9th May to Saturday 13th May, 7:00pm.