Melbourne International Arts Festival
The Actor’s Gang
“George Orwell’s 1984”
In the dust of the raucous energy of public Singing or Dancing in recent times, this years Arts Festival seems restrained in comparison.
In 2006, one of the flagship productions of the Melbourne International Arts Festival is a presentation of ‘George Orwell’s 1984’ by The Actor’s Gang, adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan.
1984 is one of my favourite books and describes the creation of a futuristic world where the population lives under constant surveillance by the omnipresent Big Brother. It is within this totalitarian social order that Orwell explores the relationship of an individual to the state. It was frightening in its portrayal of a society where law, media and even language were designed to prevent free will and freedom of thought. Although it has been a few years since I’ve revisited the story, I still remember feeling completely devastated at its conclusion.
This adaptation is set during an interrogation of Citizen Smith, where four Party members re-enact the events leading up to Smith’s arrest at the direction of Big Brother. P Adam Walsh is convincing and heartbreaking as Smith, with the four other actors believably slipping in and out of characters from Smith’s past as his confession is extricated.
The set is designed to situate and thus implicate the audience within this process, as if we could be Big Brother. We are voyeuristically watching and made to feel as if we are participating - the audience flinched in response to the ‘torture’ perpetrated. It was confronting: at one point, Smith is presented in an electric chair at the front of the stage and the Party Members are standing directly in front of the first row, as if the audience are the jury at Smith’s trial. This was not a passive experience, it wasn’t always easy to sit and watch this play - the lady sitting next to me did not return from interval.
In our ridiculous world where the internet broadcasts real-life, real-war torture, it was worrying how much the themes connect to current events. In particular, the use of periodic interruptions from the telescreen selling state propaganda was effective in setting the tone of society outside the prison cell, but also striking in its familiarity of its fabrication or stretching the truth of war and how governments can manipulate media to generate fear as a means to justify the end.
The strength of the novel lies in its imagining of this future society and although the play is timely in some of its themes, I did find some parts in the second act a bit preachy and wordy. When Big Brother is revealed to be merely another Party member and comes out from behind the walls of the set, the story became less compelling and somewhat diminished the idea of the pervasiveness of Big Brother in society.
Despite the draining nature of the production, this production was well worth seeing and, if anything, will inspire people to return to the original novel.
As a side note, is it really Melbourne without an abundance of festivals? A stroll through Federation Square, previously populated with aforementioned enthusiastic Singers and Dancers, reveals fledgling festivals muscling in. Situated opposite St Pauls was the slinky-like white tent flogging the State of Design Festival, nicely echoing the new Design Centre at the East end of Fed Square. And how delightful to see the Fringe Festival burst out of the cool inner suburbs and claim a small stake in the heart of town (though one too many celebrity comedians in the program – the Fringe should be strictly for amateurs!).