So many cultural references from George Orwell’s seminal novel have passed into common usage, from Big Brother to Room 101, and the surveillance society he depicted has become so familiar to us, that it is easy to forget the horror of his vision. However the audience at Paper Zoo’s sold–out performance at the National Media Museum on 3rd June were served a thought-provoking and harrowing reminder.
The marriage of screen and stage was seamless. Ben Eagle’s inspired approach to John Hurt to play Big Brother on screen was most effective and has attracted well-deserved media attention. You can read all about the filming here. But Martin Knowles’ filmed sequences with the illustrious Mr Hurt should not overshadow the genius of the total product which was slick and inventive, acted with subtlety and authenticity, and had the audience riveted throughout.
Full credit must be given to Martin for his additional filming which so enhanced the claustrophic feel of constant scrutiny and the contrasting moments of snatched solace in the golden country. (The CCTV type footage was all shot on the backstairs in Bradford College’s Randall Well building and the golden country was Eldwick!) The minimal but multifunctional set, designed by Emily Pain, built by Bradford College students and assembled by the College’s Estates team, allowed for the interplay of action between stage and screen.
As we have come to expect from Paper Zoo, the performances were stunning. Julia and Damien O’Keeffe set aside the personal relationship to invest real tension of their initial encounters as Julia and Winston. Julia was superbly intense and edgy and Damien’s journey from dismay through hope to torture was truly extraordinary and unforgettable. Building on his acclaimed performance as Pringle in Funeral Games, Ben Eagle has now truly become a master of assured insincerity and malevolence. His performance perfectly captured the veneered but chilling menace of O’Brien in a way to make the audience look again at political leaders and cultural icons.
Rich praise is also due to David Peel, Kate Shackleton, Jodie Lowe and Emily Thornton for their performances in this memorable production, directed with such nerve and vision by Stuart Davies. Clever touches brought the action up to date and provided a comment on the paradox of isolation and intrusion today. The citizens of Oceania all stood together to hear the latest pronouncements, but each listened on their iPod, and O’Brien watched Julia and Winston on his iPhone.
All the little details that Paper Zoo have done so well in previous productions such as welcomes from cast in character, quirky songs and programmes, came together beautifully with support from the Media Museum. Big Brother’s pre-show announcements and censored programme in a buff Ministry of Truth envelope set the scene impeccably. Assistance from the National Media Museum’s Oliver Trenouth as AV Designer and Symon Culpan as Lighting Designer also helped make this production so polished.
The quality and relevance of Paper Zoo’s 1984 deserves sharing with many more audiences in an extended run. The potential for Paper Zoo to take this format and develop further productions in conjunction with the Media Museum should also be explored.