In the lead-up to the performance, I had so many questions about how MUSE were going to interpret and portray the complex worldbuilding of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. It also happens to be my favourite book, so I was expecting only the best. Nevertheless, I found that the production is “double-plus-good”!
Every musical number was clever and marvellously executed, from “The Party Never Ends” to “If I Died She Would Care” and “Room 101”. The double-speak lyrics, fantastic vocals and choreography truly reiterated the sentiment of the “collective”. The orchestra performed above stage for logistical reasons, but I couldn’t help but feel everything circled back to Big Brother’s omnipresence — the band is always watching. Orwell would be proud.
Winston Smith — or “Winnie” — is impeccably played by Sterling Nasa. In this version, Winston is not a whiny older man, stifled by the tediousness of his tightly controlled life. Instead, he brings relatability, humour and awkwardness to the part — something reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s already-iconic portrayal of Ken.
Julia (Eleanor Fair) stood her own as she explored her revolutionary desires whilst facing her growing feelings for Winston. Her own journey culminates in a bold action that would challenge 1984 purists. Fair also delivered a rendition of my personal favourite number, “Let’s Fuck the Party”. Here’s a sneak peek lyric for those intrigued by the title alone; “I need to give you head..strong leadership, but mostly I need your throbbing member…ship”.
O’Brien, played by Marc Aloi, stole the show. I still don’t know if he’s British or was putting on a very camp but accurate accent. Everytime Aloi showed up, dancing, singing or even berating Winston, the audience ate it up. Also, the Winston-O’Brien one-sided bromance was something I never knew I needed.
Mr and Mrs Parsons (Jason Lin, Phoebe Rosser) had juxtaposing personalities leading to a contrast of over-the-top and dry humour, while Syme (Will Kilgour) delivered a memorable harmonica gimmick.
I never thought that the Parsons’ children would be given free reign to be maniacal. However, Ruby Hobba and Victoria Alfieris were a delight to look forward to playing those key parts, whilst also being present in other roles (the rats!) that demanded constant vocal and physical presence.
Isha Desai played Mr Charrington, bringing all the hysterics. The character in Act 1 revealed their true colours in Act 2, where the Matrix glasses and black coat were on full display.
The whole ensemble was a joy to watch, including the voice of the telescreen (Laura McKay) and the shrieking woman (Stephanie Poleson) who puzzled the audience with her sudden appearance in the background of one scene. Using a photograph of Orwell as the maligned Emmanuel Goldstein during Hate Week registered self-awareness, whilst Queen Elizabeth II graced the audience with her presence, beyond the grave, and with a moustache nonetheless. Also pay close attention to what can be considered a reunion of One Direction.
The F-bomb was dropped multiple times in addition to other swear words. However, they were not merely used for the shock factor or to elicit a few laughs. They genuinely fit the context, and injected classic Aussie humour in the fictional “Oceania”. All throughout the play, the meta-element of the theatre conventions were well-realised. The stage manager, an orchestra member and cast were all in on the joke. But it was O’Brien who became the primary mechanism in stating that the cast has to pretend the audience isn’t there, but also play to the audience. It succinctly exemplified Orwell’s revered concept of doublethink in the context of the world of performance.
When the intermission went overtime, cast member Aloi (O’Brien) integrated it into the dialogue, rather than ignoring the elephant in the room. As such, there were lively interactions with the audience including taking a Chicken Crimpy Shapes box from someone. A shoutout to audience member Rachel who subsequently became the subject of an ongoing joke.
All-in-all, this engaging production is a great opportunity for those lacking familiarity with the Orwellian world, as well as the 1984 scholars, connoisseurs, and fans alike. “Salutations” to all comrades involved, especially those behind the libretto (Diana Reid and Tom Davidson McLeod), the music (Riley McCullagh), assistant director and choreographer Bonnie FitzGerald as well as director Andrew Smallbone. I, like Winston and Julia, might have realised that I love Big Brother.
Of course, you can listen to the Spotify soundtrack of a 2021 performance, but why would you when you can witness it all on stage. The show runs from July 11-14 at the Seymour Centre, so watch it before Big Brother watches you!