Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, April 4

1984 res
Big Brother stares into the mind of Winston Smith (Bryan Probets).

George Orwell may have been awry in the time placement of his vision of worldwide totalitarianism, and he may have been unable to foresee the technological “advancements” that would befall us, but his 1949 warning of a bleak future remains salutary. In fact it has come closer to reality than some may think. Had he been painting a picture of North Korea (with its laughably bizarre edicts like all male students having to emulate the vile Kim Jong-un’s haircut) he would have been eerily on the money. As it is the complete loss of privacy he depicts is daily creeping upon us as we willingly or unwillingly donate our identities to assorted on-line Big Brothers.

So the relevance of 1984 to our world is not in doubt. The question-mark about its appearance in stage form concerned the quality of the adaptation, and Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij’s effort for Queensland’s Shake & Stir Theatre Company is stunningly concise, accurate and evocative. Much of Orwell’s own dialogue seemed to be intact, and no threads of the story had been torn out, despite contracting the book into an hour-and-a-half.

Standing out in the production was the use of video, which was always going to be a crucial component, given the way screens dominate Orwell’s world. Attributed to a company called optikal bloc, these filmic elements pulsed with all the terror inherent in the book. Often they were used to show edgy extreme close-ups Winston Smith’s face (played by Bryan Probets) as he thought his dangerous, traitorous thoughts.

The shame was that the live action did match the quality of the videos. Director Michael Futcher has essentially done a good job while coping with inconsistent acting skills among his cast. Standing out was David Whitney as O’Brien, the smooth-talking inner-party apparatchik whom Winston foolishly trusts. Probets’s Winston has some strengths, but ultimately is too wet for it to be credible that this man could run the risks he does. The character of Julia needed a much more convincing actor than Nelle Lee, who’s scope cannot reach anywhere near the sense of abandon required. This is where the production really falls down because that abandon and joyousness should be a crucial contrast to the oppressive austerity of day-to-day life.

A major plus, however, is Josh McIntosh’s set. Practical, versatile, ingenious and striking, it helped to raise the on-stage action towards the level of what was happening on the screens. With a couple more exceptional actors this would be a stunning theatrical event.