2084, a reimagining of George Orwell’s now-classic novel 1984 by theatre company Pure Expression, has its most successful moments when it directly involves the audience in the dystopian world it seeks to recreate. When sitting a timed exam in the atmospheric surrounds of the library’s historic Reading Room, each attempting to become members of the Party – or being individually asked questions about what an ‘un-person’ is – a stealthy tension is at work, shifting us from observers to participants whilst unmooring our customary sense of distance and safety. This is also a clever and effective way of dramatising the lived dilemmas of a dictatorial state, making the audience uncomfortably but richly question their own choices.

Where the play falls down is in its shift to far more traditional storytelling, when the action moves downstairs: we watch scenes lifted directly from the original plot, and given little modern inflection. We are safely sat in traditional rows of chairs. Audience interaction almost ceases. The staging yo-yos from one end of the room to the other, pointlessly shuttling us back and forth; the awkward practicalities of navigating between chairs dominate, and all suspense is lost. We are made to watch things that we don’t want to, but no longer in a meaningful or provocative way: the two protagonists are badly matched, lacking in chemistry and challenged with hideous dialogue. Julia hollowly repeats the words ‘corrupt to the bone’, whether the context calls for this or not. We’re made to overhear a simulated sex scene, which is lengthy and excruciating.

After giving us little or no reason to invest in the safety and success of the characters, the play briefly puts us in the spotlight again right at the end, presenting the audience with a final dilemma that jumpstarts the tension in the room. It’s a closing hint of what could have made this adaptation truly special: the bravery to really make its audience uncomfortable, and not allow us to slip lazily into comfortable, familiar complicity. George Orwell’s prose was nothing like so forgiving – and neither should this reimagining have been.

Fri 22 Nov - Sat 14 Dec, 6.30pm & 9pm, Central Library,
St Peter's Square, Manchester M2 5PD
, From £15
Polly Checkland Harding
Published on:
Tue 10 Dec 2019