There is a dissonance to the doublethink of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four which is reflected beautifully in the occasional musical excursions taken in Tahsin Gemikonaklı and Imogen Lewis’s stage adaptation at the Bloomsbury Theatre. This multimedia-enhanced production, masterminded by the rising star Alex Rodin, is heavy on chilling found footage, but it is the music that lingers in the memory. At times it recalls the delicate orchestral leanings of late-period Radiohead; at others, the haunting woodwind that characterises These New Puritans’ second album, Hidden.
Rodin, an LSE graduate who took the original production How To Catch A Rabbit to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, now plies his trade at the more culture-friendly UCL, a fact best demonstrated by the diverse, artsy and sell-out crowd gathered when your correspondent went along to catch Nineteen Eighty-Four last Friday. Three Weeks gave How To Catch A Rabbit, a tale of urban gypsies, a four-star review, and it’s interesting to see how Rodin’s latest creation depicts a more famous urban environment. The London of Airstrip One, Oceania, is a brutal factory of skeletal structures, desensitised factotums, and a looming telescreen which oversees everything on stage.
This adaptation sensibly doesn’t mess too much with the formula: Orwell’s beautiful economy with language is brought to the fore (and then butchered by the paradoxical Newspeak), and the plot is pruned a little, perhaps in order to heighten the audience’s confusion. Orwell’s vision left little room for aural affairs (beyond “Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree“); here, there is a new sonic assault everywhere you look. First, the lessor of Winston and Julia’s squalid love-nest (here transformed into a toothless, Cockney, prole landlady) breaks out into similarly camp fare every time we encounter her. Second, a variety of unusual sound effects pepper the performance, from the French railway announcement jingle which precedes all of Big Brother’s communiqués (prompting Francophiliac me to do a double-take on first hearing), to the mechanised human beatbox which soundtracks the office at the Ministry of Truth.
Third, and most memorably, there is a sparse but effective score by Max Wilson, performed by a small off-stage ensemble and led by first violinist Shou Jie Eng. Shou was the musical director for How To Catch A Rabbit; his score for that play was described as “terrific” by the Scotsman. Here, the music is a more subtle beast, cued to perfection and overwhelming the on-stage drama where necessary, as in the frequently-uncomfortable second half, with its grimly portentous torture scene. Wilson has approached the text like a great proof-reader, adding colour and tempering the occasional mis-step in the staging.
I’m no theatre critic, but this was not a flawless production. Undoubtedly audience-pleasing (in particular the cameo from UCL Provost Malcolm Grant, as Big Brother—a nod to the many similar performances by Sir Howard Davies in LSE Drama Society productions) though it was, there were a few jarring shifts in mood which lessened the impact compared with Orwell’s original. I don’t feel qualified to read too much into this, but what I can tell you is that, stylistically, it was an engaging and thoughtful production which made great use of the cultural capital cleverly predicted by Orwell back in 1948. The movements on stage may not always have been “joined up”, but the intermeshing of direction, sound and vision certainly was.
Nineteen Eighty Four was brought into existence by the UCLU Drama Society and Stage Crew Society, directed by Tahsin Gemikonaklı and Imogen Lewis, and produced by Alex Rodin.