Initially, presenting George Orwell's most comprehensive dystopia onstage seems a great way to skewer our Trumpian era of alternative facts, and two-way screens of propaganda and surveillance.
Yet this bleak South Australian State Theatre production of a book-faithful 2013 British adaptation lacks much expected resonance. In our "real" world, Big Brother has increased his sophistication since 1984 appeared in 1949: MTV media is so bright, shiny and distracting that it's hard to remember non-conformists who are disappeared via redundancy, or refugees who never arrive because they're diverted to hell. Bad things happen to other people, not us.
Yet on stage, everyone is miserable and the propaganda looks distinctly unappealing. It's hard to recognise exactly what the show thinks it's skewering – the 1940s-inspired design provides no clues – and so, perversely, the audience could be left thinking "thank goodness our society is not like that". An all-white cast for a commentary about oppressive power seems retrograde.
Still, the production values are excellent and the acting is good. Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) is as confused as a Kafka hero and we share in his disorientation thanks to time-jumping repeats. A couple of moments of crystal clarity show the true meaning of betrayal and of the resistance slogan "we are the dead": freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
But after ratcheting up the tension with all the tricks of the trade – flashing lights, ominous rumbles, menacing figures – the show offers a torture scene so unnecessarily gratuitous that some of us who aren't splatter-horror fans took refuge in observing others fleeing for the exits (any immersion was destroyed at that point). Polished, but gruelling with little enlightenment.
When: To March 25
Where: ASB Waterfront Theatre, Wynyard Quarter
Reviewer: Janet McAllister