Staring down at the assessment form, I can’t help but feel a little trepidation as memories of walking into exam rooms flood my brain.
It’s not that I just haven’t prepared, but I didn’t even know an assessment was happening this evening, and the surroundings, as awe-inspiring as they are in the grand circular Reading Room of Manchester’s Central Library, prove a little overwhelming.
Just to add to this heightened atmosphere, stern-looking people in blue jumpsuits hover around as a loud, echoing voice informs us it’s time to turn over the sheet and begin the test. A quick glance around to my fellow ‘recruits’ huddled beneath the reading lights confirms my suspicions – I’m not the only one feeling a smidgen of discomfort.
Welcome to the world of 2084, an immersive theatre production from the Pure Expression theatre company.
It’s been specifically designed to showcase the beautiful Manchester Central Library, and invites the audience on a thought-provoking induction where they’re forced to question their own beliefs.
Taking inspiration from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, where the author explored the ideas and impact of government surveillance, propaganda and the ‘all-seeing’ Big Brother, 2084 is set in a totalitarian state.
Citizens are brainwashed and their words, acts and even their thoughts are monitored, with harsh punishments implemented for those found wanting.
“Orwell’s novel shocked readers with its vision of the future,” says writer Adam Taub.
“2084 updates that vision and explores how fragile are the freedoms we take for granted.”
The evening begins at check-in, where each person is issued a number and told to put their phone in a sealed bag. They’re then invited to take a seat in a candle-lit space and enjoy a drink as the sound of a live singer and her pianist fills the air.
It’s all rather civilised and a gentle welcome to proceedings, even if there is a sense of being watched. It also creates a false sense of security because before long, the music’s changed tempo, and becomes more anthemic, as we’re told to follow a guide into the Reading Room.
It turns out The Ministry of Truth is recruiting, hence the mind-boggling assessment, which is broken down into three sections, and timed.
Once these are taken away to be reviewed, a charismatic suited character, O’Neil (Sam Newman), walks among us, talking about the Party’s history and manifesto, how the Ministry of Truth amends, and even deletes, the past where necessary and every so often throws questions out to see if any of us know the answer.
Moving to the ‘observation room,’ we then get to see what happens when citizens don’t abide by the rules and follow the forbidden romance between Winston (Richard Hahlo), who rewrites historical records so the Party can adapt history to suit its needs, but secretly hates everything it stands for, and Julia (Hannah Hoad) who Winston presumes is a spy before she confesses her feelings for him.
We voyeuristically watch as they embark on an affair, beginning with a tryst in woodland, where grainy camera footage shows that even here, they’re not free from ‘Big Brother’.
Later they meet in a dingy room, which they believe to be a haven, but they’re both arrested. In our observation room, we watch as Winston’s tortured for being a ‘thoughtcriminal’.
In disturbing scenes, we witness how the Party exerts influence in order to ‘re-educate’ wayward citizens, which includes Room 101, a place where someone is confronted with their worst fears. In Winston’s case, it’s rats, and the thought of them burrowing through his face is the final straw for the former rebellion who denounces free-thought and proffers his love the Party and all it stands for.
But that isn’t quite the end. No spoilers, but we, the recruits, are invited to stand and are then asked a certain question to see which of us would be willing to perform a grim task. Cue nervous laughter when it’s revealed who would, and wouldn’t, be complicit. Our induction is then up, and the winner of the assessment test is announced (they really do look at them all…).
Walking around the Manchester Central Library after dark and when it’s closed to the public, is a treat, and it creates a beautifully atmospheric backdrop. There are strong performances from the three lead cast members, and while the audience is asked to change locations it’s not to the detriment of the what we’re watching.
The production focuses solely on a love story between Winston and Julia, which some Orwellian traditionalists might not appreciate, but the bigger questions posed by the author all those years ago remain at the forefront, even if the novel’s wider sub-plots and characters aren’t explored.
In a time when we’re captured on camera almost every moment of our day-to-day lives, our data’s harvested and used to influence our actions, and our mobile phones seem to know what we want before we do, the story has never seemed so relevant.
It was a delight to watch it play out in this environment.
2084 runs until 14th December at Manchester Central Library.