1984 at The Dukes

Wednesday 29 September 2010 by Jane Sunderland

Conrad Nelson's 1984 at Lancaster's Dukes gives the lie to the view that novels can never make great plays. In some ways, they may actually make for better theatre than plays based on scripts, since the director of a novel-to-stage adaptation (guided by the adaptor, in this case Nick Lane) has the whole world before him or her.


Nelson's choice of an ensemble co-production (between the Dukes and Northern Broadsides) is absolutely right for 1984, given that wherever Winston (Nick Haverson) goes, people, different people, are watching him, and that no-one is quite what they seem.

Written by George Orwell in 1948, 1984 is the tragic tale of Winston Smith, a subversive living and working in a hyper-totalitarian state, which rules through propaganda and the instillation of fear, and who brings about his own demise by wrongly assuming that others share his questions and ideals. Orwell's novel resonated with subsequent practices in Russia and China, but even after 1984 chronologically came and went, with those of 2010: pervasive surveillance, the UK-USA 'special relationship', the entertainment and endless supply of cheap material goods which arguably hold back or at least contain resistance.

This is a taut production with excellent performances by all five actors (Nick Haverson, Kate Ambler, Chris Garner, Andrew Price and Carolyn Tomkinson), Kate Ambler in particular giving a consistently fiery performance as Winston's lover Julia (firier perhaps than Orwell's own view of women allowed). Chris Garner as O'Brien is frighteningly good in the electrocution scene in Act 2. I did feel however that this scene (and perhaps Act 2 as a whole) was over-extended: Act 1 anticipates with tension and foreboding what is to come; it may not have been necessary for Lane and Haverson to spell it out to such an extent when it did.

A comment on designer Sue Condie's set: a spartan topsy-turvy room, fractured by fault lines, obvious but important symbolism representing a world in which lies are cemented in the 'Ministry of Truth', and loyalty of family and friends can no longer exist, given that anyone may betray anyone else (to the point that a father feels proud when his own daughter reports his 'thought-crime'). The room is dotted with small screens, and one large two-way 'telescreen' which cannot be turned off. This not only shows in all its invasive and destructive reality the notion 'Big Brother is watching you', but also Winston's fantasies and thoughts, addressing the critique that theatre, like the novel, can show what people are thinking and feeling as well as doing.

1984 runs until October 9. Go. It won't cheer you up, but it will show you (if you didn't already know) what Room 101 derives its name from. More, it's an excellent piece of theatre.

A Northern Broadsides/The Dukes, Lancaster production in association with Stroud Theatre Company