1984_2_credit Andi Crown
Credit: Andi Crown

This is 1984 and Big Brother is watching, but is he really if you don’t even know who it is? Or is who even the right question to ask?

1984 by George Orwell, a new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, is the opening theatre show of this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts under newly minted Festival Director Gaurav Kripalani. Held at the Esplanade Theatre, this is the Southeast Asian premiere of the production.

Helmed as a literary masterpiece, this stage production brings to live the terrifying future Orwell foresaw – manipulation, extreme surveillance and the changing of culture through restrictions and censorship. The audience is invited to experience this world together with Comrade 6079, Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) as he thinks a thought, writes a diary, falls in love and fights to be part of a revolution.

As a book itself, 1984 is already a powerful piece of work. With mere words, Orwell takes us into this dystopian (or shall I say modern) world and leaves everything else to the readers’ imagination. To bring this on to the stage, would other elements of the production be able to bring out other nuances and convince us that this stage production is worth its weight in gold?

In this production, I am most captured by the use of visual elements to inform the audience of this world. The set by Chloe Lamford takes us back to a place of history – something familiar yet untouchable. The wooden shelves and walls with its hidden doors unveil to us as the play progresses. For a moment, the room seems to suggest a study or library of sorts only to be transformed into a strain station with the simple use of smoke. Deceivingly simple, the set frames the production into a box-like structure before the walls peel off its facade to reveal what exactly is hidden within its core.

Almost like a visual interpretation – a dissection – of the text’s themes all by itself.

However, perhaps due to its strobe lighting placed on all four sides of the stage, I feel detached from the production. Whenever the light flashes, I am reminded of my being physically away and outside of the box or world created for me on stage. I am a viewer of its horrendous acts of cruelty and manipulation, yet unmoved by what is happening. It makes me feel uncertain and I wonder if that is the intended effect of this particular choice in lights and staging.

Among the arresting visuals and the clever choreography of movements, the acting by the cast took a backseat in the grand scheme of things. The pacing for the first couple of scenes, especially with the repetitions, caused the rhythm to slow down without sufficient emotional or tension build up. That eventually served a weak foundation to keep building upon its terror and desperation for freedom. So the ending felt almost forced and abrupt.

I could not connect with the characters and it feels almost like I am watching a slice of history, with nothing at stake. Which is unfortunate, considering the political climate, Big Data and the use of surveillance today.

1984 is as relevant as ever in this day and age to be discussed and thought about. Especially with the world of Black Mirror slowly becoming a reality for various parts of the world, I appreciate the work for highlighting the themes we should start to pay more mind to. However, is there an additional value in bringing the text to life on stage? That, I am still not sure.

Originally written for Popspoken.

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