1984 18.12.09

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Simon Scardifield as Winston Smith in Blind Summit Theatre's 1984

Some actors on a black-and-grey stage, all dressed in grey boiler suits, with neat hair and (for the girls) 1940s make-up, are going to tell us a story. Blind Summit Theatre's 1984 isn't really a production of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, more a production about it – and one both spectacularly wrongheaded and indicative of the curious austerity nostalgia that saturates the design world today.

This is not a realist production, so the actors change roles, use a variety of props and devices, and manipulate puppets for the characters they do not impersonate. On paper, this could be wonderfully cranky – after all, the best adaptation of Nineteen-Eighty Four is still Terry Gilliam's biomorphic, totalitarian-chic Brazil – but Blind Summit Theatre isn't so much translating the book into a play as using the book as the pretext for an exercise in ironic constructivism. The costumes evoke Rodchenko and Stepanova's utilitarian clothes designs for the Soviet stage, and the occasional bit of athletic choreography is indebted to constructivist impresario Vsevolod Meyerhold. The deliberately alienating, anti-realist acting is borrowed from Brecht. The angular puppets suggest cubist sculptures. This itself appears as the actual object of satire, in a disingenuous dressing-up game, as if Constructivism would have been the actual art of Airstrip One. The live issues in Orwell – surveillance, Newspeak – are sidelined in favour of the enthusiastic kicking of a corpse. This is what socialism might have been like! Isn't it just ghastly, everyone? It exemplifies perfectly a feedback loop where we laugh at the silliness of primitive forms of state control (think of the Keep Calm posters and their Police Pledge successors), while ignoring the expansion of real surveillance, real control.

The other element to the production is japery of various kinds. Winston Smith is played as a callow Jez from Peep Show. O'Brien, a terrifyingly calm presence when played by Richard Burton in Michael Radford's 1984 film, becomes a yelling, stomping Herr Lipp straight out of The League of Gentlemen. Julia is a red-lipsticked austerity sexpot, the soundtrack is parodic Casiotone marching music, and the final torture of Winston has the audience – made up almost entirely of students from the local FE college – in stitches. They love all the swearing and silliness, they maybe leave pondering how colourless and shouty a world without capitalism might be, and feel just a little bit relieved.

 

 Words

Owen Hatherley

quotes story

Blind Summit Theatre isn't so much translating the book into a play as using the book as the pretext for an exercise in ironic constructivism

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Simon Scardifield as Winston Smith in Blind Summit Theatre's 1984

1984 by Blind Summit Theatre, is at the Battersea Arts Centre, London, until 9 January 2010

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