1984 The Musical – Big Brother is watching … still. (Theatre review)
1984 The Musical
8 January – 25 January 2020 at New Theatre
Perhaps George Orwell’s greatest accomplishment with 1984 was the clear indication, though an intentional muddle-headedness, of the way’s words can be used to mean their opposite. His famous book was celebrated (and banned) as a pro-communist tome when I was in school in the 80’s. It is striking to note 1984 is still on the curriculum, only today it is celebrated (and no longer banned) as anti-communist. Obvious examples of George Orwell’s point might be claiming reduced government influence while increasing bias on the supreme court ( as in the United States) or white people in power claiming ‘woke’ status. However, if Orwell was a critic of Government and its ability (regularly exploited) to control people, his emphasis was on the written word over anything loftier. Today, that means you and I. His concerns can be summed up in the line taken directly from his essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘ which states: What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. This is the thought crime of which Orwell accuses each of us, and according to this essay, he credits laziness with language as the central problem. That we place more effort on describing the object than the abstract is, in Orwell’s opinion, the very root of the problem of ‘double think.’
It is this that allows the torture chamber to be called The Ministry of Love. And it is this aspect of 1984 that grabs the attention of writers Diana Reid and Tom Davidson McLeod in their very funny 1984 The Musical.
Riffing off the notion that the word manipulates meaning, 1984 The Musical blossoms forth in a time when yet another, fresh understanding of Orwell’s perspectives are possible. Transforming the story into a political satire/review gives the play a’ Keating: The Musical’ vibe calling forth a late-night TV skit show energy that relates with its audience. Cast members play to audience expectations and forge a connection that is intimate and personal – quite the opposite tone intended by the book – yet surprisingly well connected to a modern-day interpretation. By containing the book in a television sketch comedy scenario, more can be gleaned from the famous book than if the writers chose to create from reverence. This applies equally to a presumption by the writers that a 1984 fatigue nestles inside each of us, which they exploit comically. Some knowledge of the book is required, but it is the irreverence with which the writers treat the subject matter that lands a subversive blow. The audience might be surprised by how axiomatic 1984 really is and there is no doubt the writers intend this notice.
In this way, 1984 The Musical becomes the version of 1984 we need for our troubled times. The satirical aspect reduces the serious threat of Big Brother by focusing on double speak and double think and, in this way, gives the audience another crack at controlling our own lives as political subjects. Much has already been made of the gift Donald Trump and other conservative politicians have been to political satirists. The way to handle a troll has always been our reaction, and 1984 The Musical gives us the opportunity to notice some of us have been successfully resisting Big Brother for years. One such moment arrives directly after interval when writer Tom Davidson McLeod as Syme plays mouth organ blues in his cell in the Ministry of Love. The reminder is, there are those among us for whom the horrors of 1984 have always been commonplace. Those of us fearing for our freedom today do so because the Ministry of Love is now booking good white folk. Musical theatre itself is berated and laughed at for traits that speak to its whiteness, particularly that of its turgid reoccurring. One of my favourite twists was the moustached Georgia Vella as Charrington. From a white middle class feminist perspective her performance gave me a distinct ‘2016 white women secretly voting for Trump’ vibe.
All of this is couched in an excellent score with many a catchy tune by Riley McCullagh. Under the refrain ‘The Party Never ends’ much is made of the opportunity to creatively exploit double speak and the three clever minds write witty, potent lyrics that never give way to stultifying elitism. Directed by Georgia Vella with competence and a budding style that will be exciting to watch in the future, the ambitions of the project’s creators come to the fore and present as properly realized. There is a high level of stylistic skill on display and it is exciting to see such a large-scale project executed from start to finish with such dedication. Every detail of 1984 The Musical comes from a place of raw ambition and passion for scope and one hopes these young people continue to build clever pieces of work like this for those of us who love theatre, particularly relevant home grown fresh works.
The cast are well chosen with different levels of experience that become unified under a passion to see the project properly executed that is palpable. It is thrilling to see inexperience be given such a quality production to practice the necessary thankless perfection that theatre manages to command. There are some strong voices with great charisma among the cast and 1984 The Musical gives them a solid platform upon which to hone their craft.
1984 The Musical is everything theatre should be. Moments of polish to satisfy the harshest critic combined with new starts, youthful exuberance and fine minds fresh from the uni mill who value language enough to wrestle inside its boundaries. There is some real talent here and it would be good to see these clever artists stay with their passions and continue to produce work. A shout out to New Theatre for successfully hosting it all, 1984 The Musical is an excellent way to start your 2020 theatre year.
Don’t miss it.