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1984 at the Almeida Theatre

March 12, 2014

Seen at the Almeida Theatre at the afternoon performance on 8th March 2014.

On the whole, I preferred the real thing. Those difficult Junior High days over, two “residential” school trips, “Starlight Express” and Atari home video games…

… which is my way of saying I agreed with the lady sitting next to me who exclaimed, after 1 hour 40 minutes, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

That isn’t to say there is nothing good about the play. The performances are of a high standard, with several potential Olivier contenders. Tim Dutton’s “O’Brien” is a chilling enforcer, having even me believing he was holding up five, or three, or however many, fingers he wished me to. Gavin Spokes produced a Parsons straight from the book – injecting humanity and great sympathy into the simple party member. Mentions too for Matthew Spencer as intellectual Syme and Stephen Fewell as a convincing double-agent. Also not forgetting Asha Banks as a robotic Child – a young name to look out for in a few years.

In the leading roles of Winston and Julia, Mark Arends and Hara Yannas do their best against staging determined to undermine them. Having to play several scenes “off-stage” means it takes a considerable time to forge a personal link with the audience; and poor direction leaves Yannas in inappropriate costume for a major sequence. Would a character trying to conceal her real motives from the enemy turn up to a secret meeting in the very dress she wears to rebel? That said, she manages an interesting take on a sexless functionary trying to become a real woman. Had she been able to do that on stage rather than in a projection, the full impact of her performance would have been even greater. Similarly, Arends as Winston works best when we can see him live, rather on a screen with 80 tiles (yes, I counted them, it was that kind of afternoon).

Which it was. For some unknown reason, creators Robert Ike and Duncan Macmillan decided to frame the play as a “reading group” 100 years into the future – when the government of 1984 had collapsed and Winston was a fictional creation of the period. It was significant that after the first 20 minutes of “too clever, dear, let’s have him time-travel” (do leave that to the Doctor, please!) they gave up on the concept for most of the rest of the play – several self-indulgent loops excepted. One pointless final reference, however, kicked a remaining support straight out from under the piece.

1984 is about something beyond austerity – an endless grimy subsistence. This play had a set not unlike a decent grammar school, the latest video equipment and more theatrical gimmicks than Trevor Nunn’s storeroom. Such strong material needed little in the way of such dressing, nor the cast the weights it placed on them. A stunning hour and 20 exists here, if only the source material had been trusted. As it is, it’s worth catching for some of the performances alone, but, as I started out by saying, it’s no match for the real thing.

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