Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 29


1984 res
Preparing for a little communal hate. Photo: Shane Reid.

At the risk of sounding like a goon from Pyongyang or Guantanamo Bay, let’s do the torture first. Advance publicity that the torment of Winston Smith was excessively confronting proved something of an alternative fact. More troubling than the implied violence was that the scene has become structurally disproportionate in this stage version of George Orwell’s 1949 novel of dystopian mind control.

This adaptation and production by British directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan (here co-presented by Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia) shared much that was right and wrong with the Queensland adaptation that visited Sydney in 2014. As then the 350-page novel was condensed into 100 minutes, the use of video projections (here by Tim Reid) was pivotal, and some key characterisations left much to be desired.

That neither Tom Conroy as Winston nor Ursula Mills as Julia was consistently convincing was by no means all the fault of the actors. The condensed action makes Winston less a protagonist, more a victim, and casting a younger actor in the role attenuates the sense that his rebellion has long been pressure-cooking. This Julia misses the book’s decisiveness and capacity for joyous abandon. The pair’s love tryst is appropriately furtive but lacks the feeling of explosive liberation from the grey mundanity of life.

Of course it would be entirely valid to create a new theatrical work with only a cursory relationship to the novel had that been Icke and Macmillan’s intention. Meanwhile the over-arching context they have slapped around the story by creating a putative futuristic book club discussing the work as factual biography seems a less edifying use of the stage time than deeper development of the main characters.

One central figure is absolutely nailed by both the writers and actor, however: O’Brien, played by Terence Crawford. Crawford brings a commanding vocal and physical presence to the role without sacrificing that crucial air of urbane detachment.

A well-cast ensemble fleshes out the group scenes, which include Icke and Macmillan’s brilliant Groundhog Day idea in Winston’s work cafeteria. Chloe Lamford’s design mixes literalness with elements left to our imaginations – including in the torture scene, the most confronting facet of which is Tom Gibbons’ monstrous soundtrack colliding with Natasha Chivers’ jolting lights.

Until July 22.