Theatre Review: 1984

By - Thursday 4th April, 2013

Croydon’s Breakfast Cat Theatre stages staging a surprisingly timely performance of George Orwell’s 1984. Liz Sheppard-Jones reports, and explains why you should witness the show while you still can

On the day the Daily Mail attempted to lead the nation in a Two Minute Hate against welfare claimants, the powerful and intense opening scenes of Breakfast Cat’s 1984 makes the atmosphere in the Charles Cryer theatre crackle.

George Orwell’s most famous novel has been interpreted in many different ways: as a warning against socialism, or against the post-Second World War British Labour government, or even against the naivety of Western left-wing intellectuals, blind to the real-life consequences in the Soviet Union of a system they wished to admire. My personal favourite interpretation of it is as a lampoon of life at a British public school.

This political legacy makes it surprising that after the future systems of government feared by Orwell have largely not come to pass, or have collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions, 1984 retains its immediacy. But we should not be surprised, for in their place – under the guise of individualism and unlimited freedom of choice – we have developed a near-Orwellian ability to make present reality the only truth. Now we can re-invent entire personalities via social media and fill and botox away the passage of time, the present moment can indeed become our only reality and the richness of learning, growth, and change is lost to us. Big Brother, as O’Brien reminds us, will never die. In our time, 1984 speaks more readily to people who fear these aspects of modernity than to political theorists.

This – the central importance of truth and its impossibility in a world which has abolished history – is the urgent lesson of the play. Breakfast Cat’s Big Brother belongs very much to the 21st century, and the ever-watching fraternal eye is depicted as the symbol from the infamous Endemol TV series (or at least something very much like it).

21st century doublethink is everywhere: ‘I want to go green…. and isn’t it shocking how much it costs to fill up my car?’; ‘Hurrah for the unearned profit I made on my house, and isn’t it terrible how young people can’t afford to leave home?; Human beings have never had difficulty holding contradictory beliefs but choose not to recognise this in ourselves – a reality this spikily energetic production doesn’t let us evade.

The first act is a slow burner – Tony Bannister’s Winston offers hesitant resistance to unreason, and his journey from awareness to defiance to final submission is undertaken quietly and unheroically. His subtlety later pays dividends, giving his climactic scenes with O’Brien (Ellie Dawes) the genuine power to horrify.

At times it is difficult to feel the central love relationship between Winston Smith and Julia – a fresh, likeable performance from Caitlin Nottle – and the show saves its sexual tension for the gathering storm between O’Brien (the scarily tense and restrained  Dawes) and Smith. Changing O’Brien’s gender gives a sadistic twist on the characters as found in the novel which these two work to the max.

Two other performances of note are given by Kirsty Edgington as Mrs Parsons and Roberto Prestoni as her husband.  Edgington’s warm stage presence – her years studying Drama paying off however little her day job lets her use them – and evident humanity throw the dehumanising effects of the regime which is going to destroy her into painful relief. Prestoni’s bumbling, humorous Parsons is a poignant portrait of a decent man forced away from any opportunity to know himself.

The most chilling moment of 1984 has always been its very end – the point at which we realise that in order to overpower the mind and will, force and compulsion are unnecessary. Love and gratitude alone will do the job.   The giant, inhuman, brutalising system runs on the simplest truth of the human heart, and Breakfast Cat brings us to this horrific realisation with skill and flair.  The intimacy of the Charles Cryer Studio space is perfect for this production – but I would love to see it translated to a larger one and seen by the much larger audience of which it is truly worthy.

This production’s run continues until Saturday 6th April. For tickets, visit the Breakfast Cat Theatre Company website.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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