1984 live on tour by New European Ensemble

It’s generally a good idea, if you are going to write a futuristic novel, to set it so far in the distant future that the date doesn’t catch up with you and make your predictions look a bit silly. Arthur C. Clark was way out with his predictions in 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Orwell’s 1984 came and went with Big Brother nowhere in sight. We are not being watched all the time and nor are we all wearing drab boiler suits and being bombarded by propaganda slogans. It was all too far-fetched. Or was it?

There are those who believe that Big Brother is controlling our lives but moves in mysterious ways in various guises, rather like the villain in those old vampire movies. Some think he now calls himself Google, others believe he is FaceBook or Amazon, or myriad other social media platforms or internet trading companies.

Whistle-blower Edward Snowden makes a very strong case that Big Brother is alive and well and knows everything about us. Mr Snowden gives, via a video screen, the introduction to the new multi-media production of 1984 by the New European Ensemble which is currently on tour.

The production is based around the piece of the same name by Estonian composer Mihkel Kerem but into this, New European Ensemble’s artistic director Emlyn Stam has woven several new elements. There is a film shown on a large screen above the ensemble, featuring the musicians as they act out various scenes from the story. There is also a shortened version of the original text, beautifully and passionately read by actor Boris van der Ham. Also, at one point, and to everyone’s surprise, a contribution from some young members of the audience.

The format worked very well although I think Snowden’s introduction was maybe a bit too long, more of a lecture really and, although important, it meant that the show was slow getting off the ground. Kerem’s music contains, as you would expect from the story, moments of violent percussion and rasping brass as well as lighter more lyrical moments to signify the romance between Winston and Julia. The Ensemble, as always, played brilliantly but the star of the show was undoubtedly solo cellist Willem Stam, who also played Winston in the video. The cello part was beautifully written and flawlessly executed by Mr Stam.

The New European Ensemble’s 1984 is a piece which director Emlyn Stam has described as being a concert plus, and he jokingly calls it Peter and the Wolf on cocaine. There is high drama and moments of tenderness and romance. But as we all know, it does not end well for poor Winston who ends up in Room 101, a place where your worst nightmares come true.

Although the readings of the book are in Dutch, it is easy enough to follow if you know the story and Edward Snowden is, of course, speaking English. So, if you like the book and like contemporary music then you will enjoy this original interpretation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic.   Michael Hasted   29th October 2021