20-24 October 2015
Reviewed by Becky Linsell
Choreographer Jonathan Watkins has adapted George Orwell’s novel 1984 and on its opening night in Sheffield, it was met with much enthusiasm by its audience.
Far from the usual ballet that tells a story, such as Nutcracker or Swan Lake, this production is gritty and has an edge, which you do not necessarily expect to find from a ballet performance.
Tobias Batley plays the lead character Winston Smith, who is a member of the ruling political party and works for the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite historic newspaper articles so the records support the party line. Winston secretly hates the Party, which prohibits free thought, sex and any expression of individuality.
Winston as a Party member is watched through telescreen, and throughout the production you see the face of the Party’s leader who is known as “Big Brother”, which reinforces the rigid control that the Party has and the oppression which Winston lives under.
Winston and his co-worker Julia (who is played by exceptionally talented Martha Leebolt) fall in love and start a covert affair in the countryside, away from the watchful eye of the Party monitoring. The scene at the end of Act One, in which Winston and Julia start their love affair is a beautiful piece of dance, which shows the passion between them; most excellently executed by Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt, showing their skill as ballerinas. This Act poignantly ends with them looking back towards the audience realising that we had been watching them in their passionate liaison all along.
Winston and Julia rent a room above a second hand book store, a place that they believe is safe from monitoring as the room has no telescreen. Act Two is dark and the score creates an atmosphere that builds towards the tense and dramatic finale.
In this Act, the dance tells the story of the trickery and the betrayal of both Winston and Julia. Winston is tricked into believing that he was joining a secret organisation that intended to destroy the Party – alas it was part of a sting operation testing his loyalty to the Party and Big Brother. Both Winston and Julia are betrayed by the flat owner, from who they rented, he is also a Party spy. They are captured and punished for their crimes of free thought, love and sex. Winston is tortured and sent to Room 101, which is the final destination for anyone who opposes the party.
There are parts of this performance that are completely gripping and I did not want to take my eyes away from the stage. Other parts which set the scene (mainly in the First Act) are not quite so compelling to watch and are almost too long but I believe are true to the original novel, but maybe superfluous to the ballet.
The music was composed by Alex Baranowski, who has worked with Jonathan Watkins previously, most recently in his production of Kes (as a ballet). A completely new score has been written for this production and the music compliments the ballet perfectly, enhancing the mood of the scenes; particularly in the Second Act where the mood is dark and the dances depicts the drama of Winston’s torture, Room 101 and the finality of Winston’s own name being removed from history records.
I was not so familiar with the story line of 1984 that I could honestly say that I understood every scene in the ballet, in fact quite the contrary, some left me quite puzzled. Although subsequent reading of the plot on my return home, now explains this to me; if I had read the novel it would have been easier to understand. That said, the dancing was flawless, the set was simple, dramatic and effective with the screens and the lights and the story was successfully told through both the music and the ballet.
At the end of the show, the audience applauded loudly and Jonathan Watkins was well received on stage with the dancers.
Tickets cost from £12 to £37 (booking fees may apply).
Northern Ballet’s 1984 is at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield until 24 October 2015. For more information or to book tickets click here or click the box office on 0114 249 6000.
Lyceum Theatre, Norfolk St, Sheffield, South Yorkshire S1 1DA | 0114 249 6000