Adapted for the stage by Andy Thompson, from the novel by George Orwell. Directed by Ron Jenkins. A coproduction of the Virtual Stage and Studio 58, presented by the Cultch. At the Cultch on Friday, March 25. Continues until April 3
The torture is the best part. I don’t mean to be flippant; the violence in this production is thematically justified. And, theatrically, torture has a lot going for it—like clear conflict and high-stakes dramatic action. There’s a good deal of torture and drama in Act 2 of 1984, playwright Andy Thompson’s stage adaptation of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. But to get to it, you’ve got to wade through Act 1.
In Orwell’s dystopian warning, which was published in 1949, Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, the propaganda department of the totalitarian state of Oceania. The elite Inner Party maintains power by falsifying documents and controlling information, which should ring Canadian political bells, and by constant surveillance of the population. Nineteen Eighty-Four brought us the phrase “Big Brother is watching you.”
Winston rebels by having unsanctioned sex with Julia, who is, like him, a member of the Outer Party.
Thompson’s adaptation starts off weakly. His Winston sits and writes in his diary, and even when he’s moving about the stage he describes what’s happening. Theatrically, this exposition is deadly. Director Ron Jenkins responds by creating some vivid moments—an early image of robotic, faceless workers, for instance—but that’s not the same as the playwright offering emotionally engaging scenes.
And because the adaptation doesn’t capture the novel’s drama of private liberation, the relationship between Julia and Winston falls flat. In the book, Winston places a grain of dust on his potentially damning diary so he’ll be able to tell if anyone has moved it; the play prefers the broader strokes of public denunciations. And Thompson emphasizes Julia’s role in producing state-sanctioned pornography, a grace note in the novel, making her a bit of a grim kinkster in the stage version. In the book, Julia’s frank sexuality is liberating; here, it seems she’s merely substituting one form of dreariness for another.
But in Act 2 the possibility of change becomes more exciting as the lovers seek membership in an underground rebel movement called the Brotherhood. And the climactic conflict between Winston and the state remains a riveting lesson in thought control. A member of the Inner Party holds up four fingers and tells Winston that he’s displaying five. When Winston disagrees, he is jolted with electricity. The interrogator keeps repeating his assertion—much as Stephen Harper keeps repeating his line that Canada needs more prisons.
Playing the interrogator, Andrew Wheeler is terrific in these scenes—unnervingly, ingratiatingly calm—and Alex Lazaridis Ferguson makes Winston’s pain uncomfortably real. Earlier on, Ferguson nails Winston’s antiheroic ordinariness. Unfortunately, Ferguson also sports a vaguely Liverpudlian accent, even though party members are supposed to sound posh—as Amy Hall-Cummings’s Julia most certainly does. One of the many Studio 58 students in this production, Hall-Cummings already has the poise and precision of a pro. Anton Lipovetsky delivers a charming turn as an antiques dealer, and Joel Ballard is dumbly endearing as a politically blind party member named Parsons.
Set designer Drew Facey, costumer Naomi Sider, and lighting designer Adrian Muir make the evening stylishly dark.
But I wanted to be more frightened in the dark—and more hopeful in the light.