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Friday, 26 February 2010

Theatre - Nineteen Eighty Four - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 10/10

I have got to admit I was slightly sceptical about how George Orwell’s classic novel about the horrors of totalitarianism and state control could be successfully adapted for the stage. Matthew Dunster has completely dismissed the sceptic in me, and held the Royal Exchange audience both spellbound and terrified in equal measure with his electrifying new adaptation.

Jonathan McGuinness is nothing short of fantastic as the Ministry of Truth worker Winston Smith who tries to strike out for truth and love against The Party, and its leader Big Brother. The concepts first introduced by Orwell when the novel was first published in 1949 are so familiar to us now that it is easy to forget that they were just figments of his brilliant imagination – Big Brother; Room 101; and the Thought Police to name but a few. McGuinness is totally believable as the brave and rebellious Winston.

He and his new found lover Julia (also very convincingly played by Caroline Bartleet), strike out for truth; justice; and love against the terrifying regime. And we all know what happens to those who challenge the ruling orthodoxy. The whole cast gives a brilliant display of brainwashing, and the terrifying attempt to control the thoughts and lives of ordinary people, with the recent/current events in Iraq and Afghanistan making Orwell’s razor sharp political observations as relevant now as they were in the post war era.

And what torture scenes they are. It is difficult to keep watching – so convincing are they, and is McGuinness in particular. Special mention must also be given to Paul Moriarty, whose long and eloquent speech as the subversive dissident Emmanuel Goldstein is extremely accomplished with not a word out of place.

The staging is astonishingly good – with so many changes of scene, set, and mood to convey. And the Royal Exchange does it with style. This is the best production technically that I have seen there since Henry V in 2007. The usual theatre in the round is transformed into a linear set, which brilliantly changes into the terrifying torture scene of the Ministry of Love and Room 101. Music and lighting are also used to terrific effect.

I seriously cannot praise this production too highly – go and see this play, but prepare for a very uncomfortable ride.

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