The real world is a dystopia and “1984” is our relief

In 2018, 1984 looms over us. The Orwellian world of “doublespeak” and “Big Brother” seems almost akin to our world of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. So, why watch a dystopian play when we’re already living in one?

Funnily enough, 1984 gives us hope. Like a call to arms, Orwell’s nightmare vision offers a bleak refuge for us. The familiar tale is purposefully confronting; a stark reminder of the darkness found in our modern times.

At times, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaption of the original text can be annoyingly literal. It blatantly nudges audience into a certain interpretation of the play—1984 laid out as a manic, feverish dream. Scenes are repeated. Big Brother is watching. Characters are interchangeable. Time is a flat circle.

At the same time, this helps to create an overwhelming sense of paranoia. In the midst of this all, Winston (Tom Conroy) is a terrified, quivering mess. He timidly follows exercise routines instructed by a surveilling eye. He is bewildered at his fellow comrades cheering on at a hate session, where thought criminals are executed. The dialogue is terse and the atmosphere is tense. He does not trust anyone, and as a result, neither do we.

Occasionally, the plot trudges along, such as with the bland confrontation between senior party member O’ Brien (Terrence Crawford) and the young lovers Winston and Julia (Rose Riley). The stakes feel low, likely because Winston is far from the typical hero. We can only look upon his plight forlornly. It is not only till 1984‘s final moments, where the walls literally crumble down and Winston has been captured. The play heralds a climatic finish leading up to the infamous Room 101 scene. In this, O’ Brien’s staff member grabs a camera zooming in on Winston’s blood-stained face. As the live projection is shown in the background, the theatre lights are brightened. We, the audience, are witnesses to Winston’s torture. 1984 proudly cumulates to the audience’s passive participation: there is a real horror in doing nothing.

Most of all, as the curtain closes, we can retreat from this terror. We return to our 4G connected smartphones. We laugh about Michelle Wolf. We moan about Crazy Rich Asians. After all, fellow comrades, haven’t you noticed? The real world is dystopia, albeit a “boring” one. 1984 is our relief.

This review is based on the performance on 26 Apr 2018.  Part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, 1984 ran from 26-29 Apr at Esplanade Theatre Studios.

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