That you could turn 1984 into a seriously comic story is one surprising aspect of the Blind Summit Theatre's premiere production of the Orwell classic at the Battersea Arts Centre. That you could play Charrington and Goldstein with puppets and make that make glorious sense is another. And when you add quite the oddest, but possibly most effective, sex scene you're likely to see on stage in many a year into the mix, then this is a production that delivers the unexpected.
That it also delivers a polished, entertaining, gripping evening is a tribute to director Mark Down, puppet designer Nick Barnes and a fine acting team.
There have been many attempts to stage and film 1984, and few have been successful. Really, this is a book about what goes on in Winston Smith's head – and that's not easy to put on the stage.
The challenge is centrally overcome here by the use of a chorus – which sets the scene and carries the stories, and the thoughts, along. It marches for Hate Day, it dances obediently to Big Brother's tune, it sings patriotic songs, it is the puppet-master – and it never leaves the stage. Even when Julia goes to light a gas flame in Winston's "secret" room, the "flames" are the dancing fingers of a chorus member. And then there's that sex scene – Winston and Julia's first meeting in his "golden country" – in which the chorus manipulates their bodies. It sounds weird, but in fact it is an effective metaphor for the whole story unfolding before us.
Weaving around the framework provided by the chorus are some fine, sophisticated conceits. This is – an old trope but in this case an effective one – a production within a production. We meet the cast on the bus on the way to the BAC, and they explain the staging, and announce each scene.
And there's also a "staging" of Emmanuel Goldstein's The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by means of moving comic book – playing wittily off the current trend towards "comic book" versions of philosophical and political foundational texts.
The puppetry too is entirely self-conscious and upfront. A cardboard thrush in a country wood is pure incongruity, so too a Goldstein of head and hands that pops over a screen, yet both are curiously effective and affecting. And the spookily human-and-yet-not-human movement of Charrington, the junk shop owner who rents Winston a room, is something that will linger in my mind.
Simon Scardifield is powerfully restrained as the passionate Winston, the frightened Winston, the broken Winston. Julia Innocenti as the fun-loving, for-the-moment Julia is also outstanding, capturing her tremulous, uncertain, and ultimately shallow conversion to political passion with fine judgment. If there was one character I wasn't so sure about, and I'm not sure I'd blame the actor here, it was Gergo Danka's O'Brien – the goosetepping, potbellied strutting of his character I found more distracting than illuminating.
But if there's one aspect of this 1984 that really gives me pause it is the fact that here we are in CCTV-flooded London in 2009, with a government that keeps trying to hold alleged "terrorists" while refusing to disclose the evidence against them to they can defend themselves, in a city where peaceful demonstrators can be "kettled" (effectively imprisoned) for many hours without cause. Yet this production very much sees 1984 as an historical artifact.
The feel of the production is quasi-Soviet (indeed much of it reminded me of the filming of a North Korean propaganda movie that I witnessed many years ago), the costuming very much of that era, and the technology is of the strings and cardboard, British post-war idea of how to imagine the future. It seems to almost perversely be refusing to engage with the debates of today, particularly given that Amnesty International is involved in the production.
You could argue that it's sticking purely to the psychology, to the exploration of Winston's reaction to tyranny, yet why not engage, in some way or another, with the politics that's pervading the very air of Battersea? (Indeed we're just down the road from the Stockwell Tube station where police shot dead the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes.)
There's so much skill and quality in this production – so much pure entertainment and quality stagecraft – that I'm sure (combined with the "everyone knows the story" quality of 1984) this will be playing to packed houses through its run. It's a pity then that an opportunity has been missed to encourage the crowds to leave the theatre thinking about the London of today, rather than a past Stalinist age.
The production continues at the Battersea Arts Centre until January 9.