Northern Ballet 1984 at Sadler’s Wells

I was really privileged yesterday to see two wonderful performances in London. The first was Northern Ballet’s production of Orwell’s 1984. Music by Alex Baranowski, and directed and choreographed by Jonathan Watkins, this was a truly contemporary take on the iconic story we know so well.

One might think that over 30 years since the date of the title, and nearly 70 years since it was written, that there might be little left to say, to interpret, to be relevant to a 21st century audience.

You know what I’m going to say- of course it’s as relevant as ever. Think CCTV, cyber warfare, monitoring of mobile phones, our use of the internet, continuing issues of police trust, bankers, politicians, the way that the media appears to be in the hands of the very few,  our communal need to “gang up” on those we look down on. (whether it is Proles or immigrants…)  Whether we can truly trust our work colleagues, our friends, our lovers is a story as long as human existence, and perhaps now, with social media, our abilities to be treacherous, to be complicit, to be manipulated or the manipulator are all the stronger.

So, a subject on which so much is left to be discussed;  Watkins’ production, takes the story and runs with it. He leaves us questioning- who to trust, what does Big Brother really know is going on, and what is surmised, and through movement, excellent acting, a set that is stunning and lighting and video installation, we are immersed in a total theatre experience.

The music is sublime- Baranowski’s use of minimalism, Romanticism,  imaginative orchestration and the use of instrumental leitmotifs (clarinet for Julia, cello for Winston, horns and brass for O’Brien) helps bind the piece together. It is never just narrative, there is an intellectual robustness underpinning the composition which was most impressive. The same goes for the choreography- yes the narrative is there but there was an abstracted emotion which raised the performance to something far more meaningful.  And the use of video was clever- blurred when Winston couldn’t be seen, and clear when he could (or was that just our perceptions, and Big Brother could in reality see all the time?) The colour changes- use of pale turquoise, pink and pale mauve to create a sense of unfounded security were subtle, the yellow angular fist hands reminded one of swastikas.

The corp de ballet, both male and female (and I love the fact that Northern Ballet is pretty much equally male and female) had excellent acting skills as well as powerful expressive dancing ability. It is so exciting to watch such talent.

And the portrayal of Mr Charringon, who in turn shambles and demands money, appears to be helpful and in fact is double crossing, and the stunning shelf of junk in his antique shop, so beautifully lit by Chris Davey, was a pleasure. It would be easy to create a cheap story line here, but it became something much stronger, more complex and fascinating to watch.

The ending was as harrowing to watch as the book is to finish- and yet I would have watched it all again, straight away. It seemed to be the kind of production that would benefit from revisiting to catch all the many subtleties of all aspects of its creation. I really hope it will be shown again soon and not put to bed for too many years.




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