Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Mary Brennan


In recent years, we’ve made a reality TV formula out of Orwell’s Big Brother, with beady surveillance cameras snooping on cooped-up little lives in hopes of fisticuffs or unwise fumblings. Jonathan Watkins’s new ballet, based directly on Orwell’s visionary book, snaps us back from that “peeping Tom” salaciousness and plunges us instead into a dark, relentless Big Brother world where privacy or free will is no longer in the lexicon because neither exists any more.

The rule-book of how Party Members work, eat, sleep and even think is inflexible, and one of the most impressive things about this boldly uncompromising Northern Ballet production is how the visual context – with video imagery by Andrzej Goulding – realises the all-pervasive control mechanisms that Orwell imagines. On a huge blue-grey screen at the back, two eyes stare out over the uniformly blue-clad robotic corps. Just when you think the eyes are an unseeing logo ... they blink. And that is truly chilling. The visual chatter on-screen – grids, numbers, the colour washes that incite HATE week – more than compensates for the fact that there is no dance step that equates to the Orwellian Newspeak or Doublethink. There are, however, dance steps that can tell of love and tenderness, of individual spirit and tinderbox passions – and Watkins has the measure of them and more.

At the heart of 1984 is the illicit relationship between Winston Smith and Julia – danced with a wealth of expressive finesse on the second night by Guiliano Contadini and Dreda Blow. Winston has already strayed off the regimented path with his purchases from a junk shop, but with Julia his inner radical ignites. Their first touching of hands has an electric charge. Soon, he is swooping her up into high lifts, free as the country air beyond Party Headquarters. But they’re being watched, nonetheless, and the brutalisation of Winston – where Alex Baranowski’s evocatively doom-shadowed score really pounds home the horror – is almost too intense to watch... unless you are Big Brother. This is classical ballet with a cutting, contemporary edge in both style and content – a triumph for Watkins, and for Northern Ballet.