Tuesday, 8 April 2014

GUEST POST: Kristian Pellissier examines totalitarian rule with his review of 1984

1984, Shake & Stir Theatre, photo: Dylan Evans.

George Orwell’s 1984 poses an uncomfortable question: how much control do we really have? Shake & Stir Theatre Company invite us into the life of Winston Smith, a resident of Oceania. Oceania is in constant battle with an ever changing outside force – at one point Eastasia, at another Eurasia- and its people under constant surveillance. It is a miserable, highly controlled world that is presented in grey tones, on a stage dominated by multiple television screens. Big Brother is constantly watching, reporting and assessing: alternating between descriptions of victories on distant lands, ‘improvements’ in rations and guiding citizens through an exercise regime. Big Brother also warns of the dangers of doublethink: he will eradicate any signs of rebellion against the dominant paradigm, beginning with your thoughts.
Supported by newfound love Julia (Nelle Lee), Winston (Bryan Probets) believes that while Big Brother may be able to control our actions, the ability to think critically can never be fully controlled. Kindred spirits, they find solace in small victories – gathering relics of a forgotten world and building a warmer, more private life. This blossoming of hope is brilliantly portrayed through a hidden element to the set, which folds out of the grey like the rosy page of a pop-up book. Ultimately, Winston’s world unravels and the play’s themes shift from dark to desperate.
Shake and Stir Theatre Company’s staging, combined with a clever, rich text effectively draw you into the inner world of Orwell’s Oceania. Monologues are recited in extreme close up on television screens, providing words and expressions to the thoughts Winston doesn’t dare utter. Moments of real-time and pre-staged action are played from multiple angles and relayed as grainy surveillance footage or in agonising detail. A utopian image bathed in warm light plays in the background as Winston imagines a different life.
We may not live under totalitarian rule, but the questions the play raises strike a deep chord. In the final scenes, Winston is tortured into his final betrayal. Big Brother, ever watchful, has found his greatest fear and uses it to strike the final blow, where he finally abandons his humanity. Surviving the torture and reunited with Julia, she admits to a similar betrayal, although the audience is never privy to what Big Brother has found on her. This masterstroke leaves the viewer filling in the details: and in the process, exploring what might lead them to a similar breaking point. That Winston and Julia survive the torture and continue their lives in Oceania also highlights the nature of power. Orwell is highlighting to us that power is a game played between two people – the one that controls and the one that is controlled. How much we are controlled and by whom, is a question that we as a society must constantly ask ourselves.

Kristian currently works as a dancer, dance teacher, adjudicator and Program Officer for the Australia Council for the Arts.


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