George Orwell’s 1984 – a story of centralised surveillance, mutual monitoring and vanishing privacy – is a very contemporary tale. Yet with its gloomy ambience and dated video graphics, Northern Ballet’s terrific new production mixes the postwar look of the late 1940s with the clunky tech of the early 1980s. Rather than updating the story to make it “relevant” to today, this version snares you in more underhand ways.
Jonathan Watkins, the show’s choreographer, has a fine eye for gesture, posture and phrasing. Winston Smith (Tobias Batley) enters as if fearful of disturbing the floor itself, and when he writes in his diary, his hunched urgency makes the act feel both shameful and almost sensual. The ensembles of Party members alternate between machine-like assemblages and aggressive mobs. You notice how deftly Watkins uses hands: as betraying handshake, tender touch, gesture of allegiance, raised palm, closed fist. The pixelated eyes of Big Brother watch from an outsize telescreen above the stage, making the characters constantly vigilant of each other.
After its gripping opening, act one flags a little, with long numbers that set scenes but do little to further story or character.
they don’t so much consummate their liaison as desperately entangle their ambivalence
Then the story of Winston and Julie (Martha Leebolt) kicks in. Riven equally by desire and mistrust, they don’t so much consummate their liaison as desperately entangle their ambivalence. Just when they seem spent, Watkins has them fall upon each other again, pushing them to physical and emotional breaking point. Afterwards, they look over their shoulders at us; suddenly we become aware that throughout this searingly private scene, we have been watching them.
Act two brilliantly builds the tension and brings the story to its doomed conclusion, with Winston and Julia taken in and then betrayed by Party senior O’Brien (Javier Torres). The brainwashing room is genuinely disturbing, the dancers’ eyes hollow, their bodies racked with dysfunction. Again, Watkins immediately ratchets up the drama in the final scenes of torture and betrayal, and in the nightmare vision of Room 101.
There are flaws. O’Brien is a flat character, his frequent tie-straightening more a tic than a trait. It is not very clear why the Proles are there; indeed, some scenes seem included only because they are in Orwell’s book.
Still, the designs are marvellous – both ordinary and ominous – and the score (by Alex Baranowski) is an unsettling stream of musical fragments variously suggesting force, fear and doom. Batley and Leebolt are excellent, their bodies as vividly present as their faces are haunted. At the chilling end, we realise not only how intently we have been watching, but also that we too may be watched.