Brave New World

15 August 2012 | 8:15 am | Helen Stringer

"We didn’t set out to be a George Orwell company. But at the same time, we look for texts that lend themselves to re-contextualisation and adding our contemporary spin to them."

Before the term Big Brother was associated with a trashy television series premised on appealing to the lowest common denominator with its combination of equal parts public humiliation and everyday voyeurism, it belonged to George Orwell's bleak vision of the future. Orwell envisioned a world in which government powers equate to complete control: thoughts monitored, language systematically dismantled, every action perceived as an act against or for an all-powerful state. Whether Orwell's vision of the world is more or less disturbing than the reality television incarnation is debatable but that 1984 is a classic text on a harrowing and grim dystopia is undeniable.

Having already tackled Orwell's Animal Farm to much acclaim, Queensland youth-oriented theatre company, the much-lauded Shake & Stir, is bringing 1984 to QPAC. Shake & Stir co-founder and co-artistic director Nick Skubij explains of the back-to-back Orwell, “When we got into our main-stage stuff we really did sit down and think what could we do that people haven't seen before?” After bringing Shakespeare to younger audiences, he says that looking to other classic texts, like Orwell, was a natural progression.

“As with Animal Farm last year,” Skubij says, “it's a text that is something that's studied quite frequently in schools and it lends itself to stage adaptation. But,” he laughs, “we didn't set out to be a George Orwell company. But at the same time, we look for texts that lend themselves to re-contextualisation and adding our contemporary spin to them. 1984 especially; it's not going to feel like it's an old, heritage text and that's the nature of that work. It's uncannily modern.”

Whilst traditionally Orwell might be a dreaded component of the high school curriculum, Skubij explains that the production is modern and, true to the source, pulls no punches about the dark content. “The whole third part of the book is all about torture and it's got these dark sadistic overtones to it; all the while you've got this feeling of oppression and voyeurism from the fact that you know every move is being monitored right down to thoughts. You've got this terrible feeling that nothing is private… it's always monitored and there's a very exciting feeling of impending doom that runs from the outset. It's horrifically grim.” For this production, he says, “[You] get to see the text as it was intended: to scare the audience and to provide a cautionary tale about where we could be heading.”

It's perhaps precisely this preparedness to stay true to original texts despite complexity and darkness – a trait that's often absent in youth productions – that has garnered Shake & Stir so much success; shows are youth-oriented but never patronising. Skubij explains of Shake & Stir, “We wanted to really focus on creating a company that's not necessarily only a youth company, but that's really heavily committed to creating theatre that young people can really get involved with in all sorts of ways. The other guys had similar sorts of ideas: there was a gap in the market for high quality, engaging contemporary theatre for young people.

“We're all really interested in the theatre that we produce,” he continues, “we're all really committed to remaining in Queensland and helping the industry continue to develop and continue to offer substantial opportunities for actors to remain in Queensland without having to jump states. We're really happy that we've been able to stay around and continue to grow.”

1984 runs from Thursday 16 August to Saturday 1 September, Cremorne Theatre, QPAC.