Playwright Adam Taub says, “In the era of Google, Amazon and Meta, when our every move is monitored and recorded, there is no more relevant story than
It makes us realise the extent to which we live in the age of 1984
It’s many centuries since Pontius Pilate allegedly asked, “What is truth?” In Oceania there is no doubt. Truth is whatever the Ministry of Truth declares it to be. If you have memories that you believe tell you otherwise that the Ministry dictates then you are mistaken. If you write down or proclaim those sentiments to another, then you will be discovered, taken away and re-educated, because Big Brother is not only watching you but listening to you and reading your thoughts. Is you room bugged? Of course it is. Are you family, your friends, your lovers and partners working for the Ministry? Of course they are, for that is the way that Oceania will survive for ever. Or take a break. Believe that life is not like that, behave according to your feelings and see what happens. There is no room for secrecy or dissent; no margins for emotional attachment. This is the age of totalitarian surveillance. Big Brother reigns supreme and the Ministry’s mission is to ensure that Oceania will exist in perpetuity,
The imposing Art Deco Hackney Town Hall, venue for Pure Expression’s latest immersive production, has the austerity and deceptive beauty one would expect for the headquarters of the Ministry. Upon entry bags are checked. Phones must be silenced. Everyone is given a colour-coded badge that assigns to either the red, blue or green group and has a unique number. There is no way of knowing the significance of either the colour or the number. This is not a place to ask questions, merely to follow instructions.
We assemble in the chamber of the building, seated according to our designated colour. A black and white war film is shown and the anthem of Oceania is sung before O’Brien (Jude Akuwudike), with mellow tones and convincing logic begins his exposition of the Ministry’s rationale. It is so easy to find oneself nodding in agreement, caught up in the smooth-talking that makes complete sense and renders any alternative ludicrous. Akuwudike is frighteningly captivating. How could you go against such a charming man? And then comes the realisation of how painless it is to be sucked into the propaganda, to conform, to unquestioningly believe in Big Brother and the Truth and then to carry out the commands follow. The sound by Thor Aswarm, lighting by Jonathan Simpson and sets by Dr Jeroen Van Dooren all contribute in a precise manner to the running of the well-oiled machine that is the Ministry.
Julia (Kit Reeve) and Winston (Declan Rodgers) are examples of those who thought they could beat the system. Of course they are discovered. We see Winston taken away and witness his torture and the re-education he undergoes to correct his memory. His condition of not seeing things as the Ministry has declared them to be is manifestly a mental illness that must be treated by correction. Both Reeves and Rodges give compelling performances that make personal the suffering to which millions have been and still are subjected to around the world.
The truly remarkable aspect of Taub’s adaptation directed with unnerving simplicity by Jem Wall and Richard Hahlo, is the subtlety with which it makes us realise the extent to which we live in the age of 1984. Today we listen to the propaganda of warring factions and to politicians in denial of what they have said, even though the evidence is in front of us. And when truth and lies become indistinguishably merged in fields of political rhetoric, 1984 confronts us with those situations and reminds us of how dictators come to power and how millions have died and many more millions have had their lives destroyed on the strength of their ideologies because people succumbed to the pressure of the message and those to whom they gave power
There’s a powerful scene at the end that challenges the extent to which we have become drawn in to the dogma and developed fear of the consequences of standing up against wrongful actions and evil instead of doing what we know to be right. This might be theatre, but it speaks to our lives and the world we have allowed to build up around us. If only 1984 were just a play.