Northern Ballet 1984

Apr 1 2016 | By More

★★★★☆    Compelling

Festival Theatre:Thurs 31 Mar – Sat 2 April
Review by Susan Lowes

Northern Ballet take on a dystopian tale of oppression and scrutiny at the Festival Theatre until Saturday. But it leaves the question, could it’s bark be worse than its bite?

Premiering in September 2015, Northern Ballet’s interpretation of Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, is impressive, visually stunning and technically skilled.

Northern Ballet in Jonathan Watkins' 1984. Photo: Emma Kauldhar

Northern Ballet in Jonathan Watkins’ 1984. Photo: Emma Kauldhar

1984 is the story of Winston Smith, a low-ranking member of the ruling Party Oceania. The Party watches everything. The Party controls everything – the history, the language, the people, their thoughts. Everything is controlled, everything is uniform, there is no individuality and thought-crime is severely punished.

Choreographer Jonathan Watkins explores these dark and repressive themes with a dynamic and eclectic mix of dance, music, theatre and multimedia elements.

The production opens in the shadows with a nervous and cautious Winston, played by Tobias Batley, purchasing a contraband diary from a prole shop – a poor area where the proletarians live basic lives free of Party monitoring.

And then suddenly you’re hit with a wall of light, the eyes of Big Brother assaulting your senses. The screens are everywhere within the world of the Party. The people watch the screens, spreading the hate perpetuated by the Party, and are in turn watched themselves. It’s very effectively communicated and the Party is omnipresent.


In a hidden alcove of his flat, Winston expresses his individuality in his illegal diary. His head is soon turned by the graceful Martha Leebolt as Julia, and the enigmatic Javier Torres as O’Brien.

Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia in Jonathan Watkins' 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar

Tobias Batley as Winston and Martha Leebolt as Julia in Jonathan Watkins’ 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar

She is another low-level member, he a member of the powerful inner Party – and they both seduce Winston into betraying his thought-crimes – through both love and political uprising. It all results in a powerful culmination in the Ministry of Love – which definitely isn’t a place you want to be.

Orwell’s vision is very effectively portrayed in Watkins’ production. Alex Baranowski’s music is a perfect accompaniment to the drama on the stage, with skillfully constructed melodies and rhythms wrapping around the story, playing on the contrasts and interactions on stage.

The ensemble scenes in the Ministry of Truth are very uniform with staccato, mechanical movements giving the impression of cogs in a well-oiled machine. This is acutely juxtaposed by the free world of the proles, where the dancing is fluid and free, a world full of colour and character rather than the uniform blue. It’s a nice contrast and it works well.

dilutes the fear

And yet there’s something about the production that’s a little bit too nice, something that’s a little bit too easy. While Big Brother may be omnipotent, there’s little threat.

Northern Ballet as the Proles in Jonathan Watkins' 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar

Northern Ballet as the Proles in Jonathan Watkins’ 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar

The accelerated timeline needed to translate the story into a ballet means that in the first act Winston is a little bit too cavalier in his interactions. He takes too many chances, he’s a little bit too eager to trust and expose himself. And the result is that it dilutes the fear.

So too with the second act in the Ministry of Love. In Orwell’s story O’Brien spends months torturing and brainwashing Winston, who struggles to resist. However, this sense of time is lost in Northern Ballet’s production and so too is the terror of the dreaded Room 101. Winston’s struggle to maintain his self and his love for Julia, while being subjected to his ultimate fear, is also significantly weakened.

Without these, it all seems a little too easy. While there are some stunning scenes, particularly Winston and O’Brien’s clash as they enter Room 101, there’s not enough to communicate the terror and darkness that betraying the Party brings.

While Northern Ballet’s production has all the elements of the dystopian masterpiece – and ultimately the ending is superbly executed – it could bare it’s teeth and give us a little more bite.

Running time – 1 hour 50 minutes (including one interval)
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT
Thursday 31 March – 2 April 2016
Evenings: 7.30pm; Sat matinee: 2.30pm
Tickets and details:

Northern Ballet in 1984 on tour2016:
Thu 31 Mar – Sat 2 Apr Edinburgh
Festival Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
Wed 4 – Sat 7 May Southampton
02380 711811 Book online
Tue 24 – Sat 28 May London
Sadler’s Wells
020 7863 8000 Book online


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