THEATRE REVIEW: 1984

Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
17 July 2014

Photos by Dylan Evans

In the intimate (even stuffy) Cremorne, we are blinded by roaming searchlights. A huge screen looks down upon us from the bleak stage. Shake & Stir immerse their audience in George Orwell’s 1984 — a draconian future where “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” Here, the past is malleable and even private thought is public property.

Bryan Probets is compelling as Winston Smith, the quietly sharp, nervous dissident who works in the Ministry of Truth rewriting records of the past. The telescreen — a two-way television that both broadcasts and monitors — dominates his home and life. Winston’s internal struggle against Big Brother is broadcast to us even while, in person, he hides from prying cameras. His monologues induce doublethink in the audience: we know this is private; we know we are watching.

Set designer Josh McIntosh has stashed the past in crevices and under floorboards. The unfolding of a secret, museum-like room is a special delight. But it’s Optikal Bloc’s visuals that are at the heart of this production. (Ironically, they edited 2013’s season of Big Brother for Nine Network.) Matched with Guy Webster’s suitably overwhelming sound design and Jason Glenright’s always-clever lighting, Optikal Blok evokes a claustrophobic sense of constant surveillance.

1984 — photo by Dylan Evans

Unfortunately, the cast can’t quite maintain this sense of dread. Ross Balbuziente, Nelle Lee Julia and Nick Skubij — company co-artistic directors — each seem miscast as cartoonist iterations of their characters: keen patriot Parsons, secret rebel Julia and elderly antiques-peddler Charrington respectively. David Whitney as O’Brien brings a gravity essential to the double-agent role; he is the production’s much-needed metronome, keeping the pace even.

There’s a particular bleak resonance in Orwell’s vision: in 2014, we enact doublethink every day; we willingly cling to the devices that monitor and data-mine us. Michael Futcher makes note of these phenomena in his director’s notes. Yet scenes in 1984 that ought to remind the audience of its role in its own panopticon are often played lightly enough for laughs. Winston’s prison experience is at one point reduced to toilet humour. And, significantly, there’s a bitter-sweetness lacking from his frantic connection with Julia. Even the live rats meant to signify terror are, well, really cute.

Shake & Stir’s production faithfully follows the plot and text of Orwell’s 1948 novel (I did my homework and read it last week), yet something is missing. No amount of audio-visual saturation can stand in for genuinely felt fear. Opening night, if I understand correctly, was the 101st showing of this particular adaptation; after 124 days on the road, perhaps 1984 is going through the motions. Still, Orwell’s inventive language alone reminds of our tenuous grasp on memory; our disconnection from inconvenient histories; and how easily we might be complicit in our own enslavement.

“If you want a picture of the future,” says O’Brien, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.” Shake & Stir has long since found its feet; during 1984’s QPAC run, I hope it’ll find its steel-capped boots.

1984 plays until 2 August 2014 at Cremorne Theatre, QPAC.

REVIEW: Tequila Mockingbird

Words: Tahnee Robinson
Photos: Dylan Evans

In Tequila Mockingbird, shake & stir theatre company reinterpret Harper Lee’s classic in a distinctly Australian context — an idea very much in keeping with their mission statement: to “motivate, educate and relate to youth.” Thus, Tequila Mockingbird takes us to the township of Stanton, barely a dot on the map — where it hasn’t rained for a long, long time.  The town, like much of the play, functions as a symbol of country Australia: there’s a Food Store that closes at five, a newsagent, a pub and a cast of salt-of-the-earth folks just trying to get by.

All of these places are created on a single set that is simple, but clever. Back-lit walls change colour to indicate different locations, and to differentiate between outside and inside. Three metal cages are moved around to form fences, couches and the bar at the pub as required.

Photo credit: Dylan Evans

Charlie (Nick Skubij) has been dragged to this particular end of the Earth from Sydney after his parents’ separation, and he’s not impressed. He’s not the only newcomer to Stanton; there’s also an Indian doctor named Sameer, played by Shannon Haegler. References both to the source text and some of Australia’s present cultural issues are made clear; the play evokes the Cronulla riots, violence against Indian students, the phrase “fuck off, we’re full” and various other blights that have nixed attempts to declare Australia a post-racial society. Sameer himself references these indirectly, repeating throughout the play that his father had not wanted him to come to Australia. He even cracks a Jayant Patel joke. The scene is played for laughs, but it also serves an important function: to remind us that as a minority you are always in danger of your actions becoming representative of an entire ethnic or social group.

There is a lot of humour in Tequila Mockingbird, and it’s well received by the audience.  As a child of rural Australia these scenes made me smile in weary recognition more often than laugh out loud. Barbara Lowing shines in this department, switching between Sue the publican, Trish the alcoholic and Karen the concerned neighbor. A cast of six plays 11 characters and the whole team is adept at the rapid transitions; there’s no danger of confusion. Lowing in particular seems to function as a sort of country matriarch composite. Always loud and a little bit nosey, all three characters are stereotypes, but they’re supposed to be: I’ve been cackled at by the shrill alcoholic in the liquor store, and cornered by the concerned neighbour. The audience giggles and gasps in horror as Trish tells Sameer that all rice tastes the same with curry on it, and I wonder at the difficulty of tackling racism without accidentally falling prey to classism. shake & stir have taken on a big task with this production; they’re trying to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time frame.

Photo credit: Dylan Evans

There’s a lot of time dedicated to build, and the key event — the assault on a young woman, Rachel (Nelle Lee) — takes place past the halfway point. From here, the pace speeds up. In addition to racism, the play also deals with the social symptoms of small-town death, and the cycles of hardship that feed them (alcoholism, unemployment and youth boredom come to mind). One of these is domestic violence. To defend Sameer, Richard (Bryan Probets) has to put Rachel on the stand to testify in court.  The scene is uncomfortable, and in the defense of the innocent the actual victim of the crime is cast as a villain. This isn’t acknowledged in the play, and after this point Rachel has no voice at all. The audience isn’t reminded that Rachel is lying under threat of further violence, and there is no sense of resolution to her situation.

One of the criticisms levelled at Lee’s original novel is that it’s a white-saviour story. It would have been nice to see this issue addressed more thoroughly in the interpretation. We hear from Sameer, but it feels a little shallow; his unfailingly polite acceptance and determination seem like an idealised version of a person.

Tequila Mockingbird deliberately avoids resolution in another area, too. In the original tale the stalwart Atticus Finch finds his faith shaken. Likewise, Richard is badly rattled by the course of events; angry and shocked he tells Charlie that “you can’t teach people like them.”  It’s a much more thought-provoking conclusion than a tight, comfortable resolution, and it better serves the play’s purpose: to leave the audience thinking.

TEQUILA MOCKINGBIRD is on at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until September 7. Tickets $30 – $52.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.