So that initial curiosity took the audience to the Kazimier, sometime performance space and nightclub in Wolstenholme Square, by Cream, for just three shows. Tell Tale is described as a “voluntary group”, and was certainly playing for an appreciative audience, possibly mainly of friends and family, for this, its first ever production. It was unclear whether that means amateur in this case – although some taking to the stage were noticably new to performing, the main cast was superb.
The Kazimier, a dingy hipster spot, lent itself beautifully to the vision of director Emma Smith, who moved characters around the room and away from the conventional stage space with flair. George Orwell’s classic story of Winston, one man taking on an oppressive regime – dehumanising the population in a world of constant surveillance – was lovingly accompanied by a soundtrack and film that really worked nicely to push the story forward.
At first I wasn’t sure of the decision to have a great deal of Winston’s inner monologue heard as a voiceover rather than spoken aloud, but I quickly warmed to this device. However, it made Jonathan Hall’s job in that lead role all the trickier, although he rose to the challenge beautifully and his was just one of many remarkable performances. Chris Carney as Winston’s saviour/ nemesis O’Brien bought a cool, frightning intensity to his role that was hard to ignore. Alan Pugh as Parsons went from happy-go-lucky joe to a man in the grip of madness. Leanne Jones, also credited as producer and assistant director, was a simply fascinating presence in several roles, from devil-child school girl to terrified prisoner.
That fear and aggression, you see, was all around. The show began with the menacing sound of white noise – that seems to happen a lot these days and can be rather annoying when you’re waiting for things to start, but in this case, again, it was actually rather useful. As the ensemble filed in, and began to move in time to a trip-hop beat, chanting the nonsensical slogans of Big Brother and taking part in the Two Minute Hate, right from the off this was a pretty hard watch – and it was supposed to be. The faceless regime filling its subjects with so much bile and fear immediately made the audience feel exposed and very unsettled. Uncomfortable, intense, challenging and visceral, 1984 had the cool sexiness and political edge of the savviest of Channel 4 adaptations; and although done on the tiniest of budgets, did its job well enough that it didn’t matter a jot.
A few technical hitches were nothing to cry about, but there might have been a debate to be had over where to place the interval. We were apologetically told upon arrival it would be an hour and 20 minutes in, with a shorter second act. And although it was perfectly understandable why – Smith waited until Winston and his lover Julia were discovered – there may have been other places that would have worked equally as well.
The action after that interval, though, was nothing short of harrowing. All hope is abandoned for Winston, as he winds up in a holding cell with other battered and bruised folk in the same boat, facing the death penalty for their thoughtcrimes. A scene played out throughout the performance space to convey the chaos in society all around – women raped, babies murdered, men tortured – was really quite commanding and scary. And as the guilty were dragged off to Room 101, the screams were blood-curdling, the breakdowns heartbreaking, the physicality of the production utterly convincing. I felt my hands gripping at the glass I was holding, involuntarily overcome with the tension, and could see others around me seemingly doing exactly the same.While this production wasn’t perfect, it had a naked vulnerability about it, a searing intensity, and was a work that took real guts.