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Print Version

Year of the Rat
by Roy Smiles
directed by Ross Gumbley

at The Forge at The Court Theatre, Christchurch
From 19 Oct 2007 to 17 Oct 2007
[1 hr 45 mins, incl interval]

Reviewed by Lindsay Clark, 20 Oct 2007

Biographical plays are a fascinating and increasingly popular genre, probing as they do beneath the given circumstances of the famous to let us see the human heart which makes them one of us. The world premiere of this production is a brilliant example of such an opportunity, realised with theatrical flair and artistic integrity.

Although George Orwell achieved lasting fame for his classics Animal Farm and later 1984, he is remembered more for their unflinching portrayal of tainted socialism than for the warmth of any personal voice. Year of the Rat addresses that imbalance, setting out a richly detailed account of a pivotal week in Orwell's life as he is finishing 1984, living out to some extent the disillusionment of its 'hero' Winston Smith.

Physically weakened by the disease which would eventually prove fatal, he is also facing his inner demons as he strives to achieve a love relationship with the woman who was to become his second wife. The writer he is blazes with conviction, or what he self - deprecatingly calls 'pontification'. The lover is unbearably vulnerable.

The challenge of how to get inside the head of this cool, disaffected analyst is solved structurally by a series of visitors to the writer's isolated farmhouse, on the remote Scottish isle of Jura. Some are live human characters and some are key characters or associations  from earlier writing: Boxer ('too loyal for too long'), Napoleon ( the Stalin figure ) and significantly the Rat, Winston's own horror, symbolising rampant self-interest and individualism. Thus the stage is enlivened by scene after scene of tense interest as the writer struggles to deal with the inertia and cynicism which have led him to the chilly isolation of the island.

Written by an actor, directed by an actor, it is unsurprising that this production  is a totally absorbing theatrical experience. Ross Gumbley draws together the formidable talents of his creative team and actors to give us a clear lead on the thinking behind the play. Humanity has to be lived. It cannot in effect be preached but nor is it the prize of mindless hedonism.

At the centre of the action, John Bach is the essence of Orwell. The intellect, physical features and emotional life of the character are so truthfully presented that there is a sense of voyeurism about the experience of watching his encounters. Here is a fine actor, engaged fully by a testing script and delivering a flawless performance.

Equally impressive is the finely tuned work of Philip Aldridge, better known in Christchurch for his day job as CEO of The Court. In wondrous contrast to the shabby, tweedy Orwell, his Cyril Connolly exudes urbanity and sophistication, a rubicund Wildean figure whose decadent wit is a delight in itself.

Claire Dougan playing Sonia Brownell ( seen as Julia from 1984 by Orwell) is crisp and intelligent in every move and Tom Trevella contributes very satisfying animal presences with a physical intensity which successfully marks these out as creatures of Orwell's mind.

Julian Southgate's darkly timbered set - complete with shell strewn, crunchy path from the foyer, dusty mantel and meagre fire - is complemented by a fine lighting design from Josh Major. Together they draw us in to the moods of the play with confident authority.

This is a production not to be missed by anyone interested in polished, excellent contemporary theatre.
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See also reviews by:
 Faith Oxenbridge (New Zealand Listener);