Review: 1984, Battersea Arts Centre
Published on Culture Wars, 18.12.2009
The future, according to George Orwell, is best encapsulated by “a boot stamping on a human face forever.” Should that prove true, then Blind Summit’s adaption of his futurist novel is well ahead of its time. Its two and a half hours felt to me a searing migraine, soothed only by the sporadic presence of the puppetry for which the company is known.
It is a cliché to say that puppets steal the show, but Blind Summit’s cardboard companions – their flat-pack faces reminiscent of cubist paintings come to life – offer blessed respite. Elsewhere, the production is scuppered by a staunch literalism that saps it of real imagination. Instead of thinking of its subject matter as source material, the devising process seems only to have asked, “How can we stage this bit?” There is no careful concern for the overall plot or for the density of ideas beneath it. The pace is slow, the rhythm as staccato as a sewing machine. It’s as if no-one thought to think dramaturgically. Winston’s fear of rats, for example, is first mentioned as the rodents hurtle down cardboard pipes towards him in Room 101.
Blind Summit’s concept is to stage the story as if a piece of agit-prop theatre delivered by a troupe brainwashed by the regime. Around Winston Smith’s relationship with his co-worker-turned-revolutionary Julia, a five-strong chorus portrays the sterilized world and its populace. However, Orwell’s dystopian society, which is so vivid on the page, disintegrates into a series of demonstrative devices, most of which feel derivative, if not totally hackneyed. I mean, how many times has the Ministry of Truth been reduced to rows of people behind badly mimed typewriters? Nor are the grotesque characters played with any more originality or detail. As O’Brien, for example, Gergo Danko has a serious case of the Doctor Strangeloves.
And why, if the indoctrinated players are denouncing the evils of thought-crime, is the regime portrayed with such stark negativity?
Much of this has to do with indecision about whether to simply tell the story or send it’s very telling up a la Fiery Angel’s theatrical spoofs. Generally, Blind Summit opt for the latter, but do so with a lack of conviction that precludes comic momentum and invention.
It’s not all bad. As Winston and Julia, Simon Scardifield and Giulia Innocenti turn in strong, if mismatched, performances. Innocenti, in particular, flits between playing it straight and her superb knack for clowning, as if she’s uncertain whether to belong with the protagonist or chorus. Meanwhile, the staging of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism is handled with fun and flair.
I must admit to being adrift in an enthusiastic audience with a heavy contingent of youth. I can see that 1984 would work as an introduction to theatre that dares to defy fourth-wall realism without resorting to pantomime, but it sorely lacks the self-reflexivity and all-questioning attitude that has helped the BAC to thrive. By being content to make do, to accept the success of its devices unthinkingly, Blind Summit proved a source of aching frustration.
On the plus side, I know what to expect from Room 101.
Photograph: Blind Summit