1984George Orwell’s deeply depressing novel 1984 about a nation perpetually at war, where cameras watch every move and Thought Police roam the streets, has never been among my favourite reading, so I was not particularly looking forward to attending this performance.

Having seen shake and stir theatre company’s previous youth theatre production of Orwell’s Animal Farm I knew that the production would at least be ‘interesting’, but from the very first moments, bombarded by huge deliberately scratchy television images, my interest was immediately engaged and for the rest of the 90 minute performance never flagged for a moment.

This powerful stage adaptation by Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij is remarkable in the way it captures the horror and hopelessness of a world where every movement is watched and any spark of individuality ruthlessly crushed. Lee and Skubij are also part of the superb five-member ensemble which makes up the cast, along with Ross Balbuziente, Bryan Probets and David Whitney, who, between them, people the stage with a seeming multitude of characters so that the audience often feels it is watching an epic rather than a small-cast production.

The leading character, Winston Smith, whose job it is to rewrite history to align the past with the current political agenda of the ruling party and its illusive leader, Big Brother, is startlingly portrayed by Bryan Probets in a remarkably intense and committed performance. When Winston falls in love with the mysterious Julia, a warm and sensitive portrayal by Nelle Lee, their forbidden love affair provides the only hints of hope or humanity in the desolate environment of the decaying concrete desolation of Oceania. Therefore when, under torture by the loathsome O’Brien (David Whitney), Winston betrays Julia, the affect is devastating.

Director, Michael Futcher, takes full advantage of the opportunities offered by Josh McIntosh’s cleverly flexible set-design capturing the bleak concrete decay of Oceania, dominated by a huge plasma screens. These screens allow the audience access into the innermost thoughts of the unfortunate Winston, while the set continually provides the audience with unexpected and intriguing surprises. Though gruelling to watch, his staging of the torture scenes with its live rats is masterly, as is his control of the interaction between the actors and the filmed sequences.

Even though this is a touring production, the detail and commitment of the performances, as well as the meticulous mounting of the production is nothing less than astonishing. Shake and stir theatre company have set the bar high with this production of 1984. One looks forward to their next production, an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s gothic masterpiece Wuthering Heights with great anticipation.

Director: Michael Futcher  Featuring: Ross Balbuziente, Nelle Lee, Bryan Probets, Nick Skubij, David Whitney  Designer: Josh McIntosh  Lighting Design: Jason Glenwright  Sound Design: Guy Webster  Media Producers: optikal block  Adaptors: Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij

The Q Theatre, 253 Crawford St, Queanbeyan, NSW
Performance: Wednesday 30 April 2014
Season: 30 April – 3 May 2014

shake & stir theatre company’s production of 1984 is currently touring to New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. For more information, visit: www.shakeandstir.com.au for details.

Review: Bill Stephens

Image: courtesy of shake & stir theatre company