I was apprehensive before watching Matthew Dunster’s adaptation of 1984 at the O’Reilly. The density of dialogue and scarcity of action renders this play a challenging production. Originally a book by George Orwell, 1984 explores a dystopian world where ‘Big Brother’ rules ‘Oceana’, a country divided into party members, and proles. The proles are not seen as human beings. The slogans ‘War is Peace’, ‘Freedom is Slavery’ and ‘Ignorance is strength’ monopolise the characters’ lives. They are in constant fear of the thought police, who monitor any possible divergence away from the party. Orwell presents a love affair between party members Julia and Winston, and how they work to undermine their party through secret rebellion. However, their efforts are futile, as they callously betray each other and disintegrate into mere shells of human beings through psychological torture.
Matthew Dunster has done well to capture this horrific and unsettling omnipresence of the party throughout the play. The large screen in the theatre frequently plays a short propaganda film chanting praise for Big Brother, which furthers the credibility of the play and heightens the play’s disturbing air. The voice-over which reads out Winston’s diary entry as he fearfully scribbles away is powerful and skilfully done. Much of the play’s success does go, in fact, to its technical aspects, which really bring Big Brother to life on stage. Those who have read the book will be pleased to hear all of the most significant quotes have been incorporated; however they could have been injected with more intensity to procure further horror. ‘If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a man’s face-forever’: 1984’s most famous quote was rather lost amidst conversation.
The acting is good, particularly from Julia, who effectively portrays the character’s slightly masculine and provoking nature, and O’Brien, who maintains an aloof and sophisticated demeanour, and a wonderfully hypnotising voice. Winston’s character is harder to act, despite being the protagonist, for his is the least memorable. He has almost no charisma, as in the book, which makes the heavy dialogue quite dull at times. Perhaps Dunster has adhered too well to the book, and the play would have benefited from cutting a few scenes and reducing dialogue. This said, effort was put into providing constant background action such as meticulously coordinated robotic party members performing tasks.
One little hitch was the bed: the only prop on stage. It began to creak and crumple early on, and gradually, painfully continued until it collapsed as Julia and Winston sat on it. However, it was a relief when it finally did, and we could relax in the knowledge that it was at last broken.
Altogether, an ambitious but successful performance.