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A scene from the Virtual Stage production of 1984

3 out of 4 stars

As the audience entered the theatre Friday for the world premiere of Andrew Thompson's new adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, multiple screens projected images of a Josef Stalin-type Big Brother, battle scene footage, and Orwell's doublethink slogan "War is Peace."

But the real catchphrase of the night, surely, was "the show must go on."

A few minutes into the second act, veteran Vancouver actor Andrew Wheeler received what producers describe as a minor blow to the head. The performance stopped for about 10 minutes while first aid was administered, then Wheeler returned to the stage and completed the show with a bandage over his right eyebrow.

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After bows, he went to hospital, where he received five stitches.

He was back on stage Saturday, for two performances.

It's not the only example of dogged determination associated with this production.

Thompson, founding artistic and managing director of the Virtual Stage, had wanted to produce a live version of Nineteen Eighty-Four for many years, but couldn't find an adaptation he felt was true to Orwell's book and reflected its desperately high stakes.

So he wrote one himself.

The result is a powerful, haunting production.

Orwell's 1949 novel was such a sensation, its vocabulary has become part of the vernacular. Oceania, a totalitarian society, is ruled by Big Brother and enforced by the Party, its Thought Police and bands of Hitler Youth-like children who eagerly inform on their parents. Once denounced, a fair trial is impossible. The country is perpetually at war. The parallels to Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union are obvious.

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Winston Smith (Alex Lazaridis Ferguson) works at the Ministry of Truth, where he deletes potentially offensive information from documents, replacing it with State-glorifying fiction. Secretly, he hates Big Brother. He thinks he can detect a like mind in a senior Party official, O'Brien (Wheeler). Meanwhile, he falls for Julia (Amy Hall-Cummings).

On stage under Ron Jenkins's direction, the oppressive police state comes to life with a loud and furious enactment of a Two Minutes Hate; the random bright-lights-and-loudspeaker interrogations of terrified civil servants for innocuous infractions; and excited preparations for Hate Week. A cast of 27 (mostly graduating students at Langara College's Studio 58) makes for a loud and busy stage, highlighting Winston's isolation.

In the midst of this, he begins a dangerous affair with Julia. The love scenes are equally powerful, Julia's full nudity the first time they make love a stark symbol of the characters' vulnerability and humanity.

But the intensity of the work, so potent in the first act, did not sustain through to its conclusion, despite the horrors of the second act. Set mostly in prison, it felt too static - in direct contrast to all the excited, alarming movement of the opening act.

What's hard to determine is whether Wheeler's accident - and the resulting breakdown of the fourth wall when Ferguson (minus Winston's British accent) explained what was going on to the audience - made it impossible to recover the momentum, or whether the problem is more fundamental.

I suspect - and hope - it's the former, because this production was otherwise very strong. Ferguson in particular was outstanding in the demanding role, conveying first quiet desperation and fear, then love and even hope, and finally pain and terror.

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A testament to Orwell's work and Thompson's adaptation is how relevant and contemporary it all feels. All those screens, all that surveillance. The torture. In one scene, O'Brien demands to know how far Winston is willing to go to fight the oppressive government. "Are you prepared to commit acts of sabotage that may kill hundreds of innocent people?"

"Yes."

It's been a very long time since I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four (put it this way: 1984 was still in the future). But on Friday, watching this world premiere, the absolute fear I felt during that first, haunting reading resurfaced, as Thompson and Jenkins brought to life the darkness, suspense, and sheer terror of a world without privacy or justice, a world where you don't know whom you can trust.

1984

  • Adaptation by Andy Thompson
  • Directed by Ron Jenkins
  • Starring Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, Andrew Wheeler and Amy Hall-Cummings
  • In Vancouver on Friday

1984 continues in Vancouver until April 3.

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