1984, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Orwell's classic as fresh as ever
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The Independent Culture

In his incisive new adaptation of George Orwell's nightmarish 1984, Matthew Dunster, who also directs, isn't afraid to take risks. That is clear, though not so much in the choreographed brutality, the debasement of terrified prisoners or the clinical application of mental and physical torture as in his decision to include a 15-minute monologue as the leader of the Brotherhood, Emmanuel Goldstein, recites a chunk of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.

After the somewhat fragmentary bittiness of the scenes in which the account of Winston Smith's fight for truth and decency gathers momentum, it's quite a jolt to find a thoroughly eloquent Paul Moriarty, under a simple roving spotlight, delivering a précis of the background to the formation of the police state of Oceania. It at least gives some breathing space to the tireless Jonathan McGuinness whose portrayal of Winston is nothing short of brilliant.

From the opening scenes in a drab "Ingsoc" office where he exists as an editor of historical revisionism, through his love affair with Julia during clandestine meetings in a seductive Golden Country, his intellectual rebellion against the Party and his subsequent imprisonment, inquisition and torture, McGuinness gives an astonishing performance. Having seemed to become physically emaciated as well as mentally broken as the evening progresses, his final appearance as a reformed and re-educated supporter of Big Brother, leaves the audience as drained as he is energised.

There is fine support from Caroline Bartleet as Julia, rather less devoted to her frigidly Anti-Sex League comrades than to exploring the freedom of experience denied in this totalitarian state, and from Matthew Flynn as the ruthlessly calculating interrogator, O'Brien. Bringing this piece of stomach-churningly powerful drama to life, and investing it with more emotional muscle than its initially unengaging dialogue seems to wield, Dunster has assembled a versatile cast. The seven-strong ensemble and the terrifyingly on-message children play as vital a role as any taken by this accomplished acting company.

Drably post-war in period, and peppered with all-knowing telescreens, Paul Wills's set opens to reveal a white, rectangular prison on whose whiteness the bloody fruits of thuggery and agonising persecution stand out with horrible reality. Ian Dickinson's grating underscoring adds relentless menace especially in Room 101 where the threat of the rats raging to get at his face forces Winston to betray Julia. The barked instructions and mindless slogans, conveyed by the ensemble and in monotonous voiceovers, resonate round the theatre into the foyers.

Dunster – both in his faithful take on the story and in his sometimes extreme but always enthralling adaptation – gets close to the heart of Orwell's warning, pointing up but not over-emphasising its current political resonances. The phrases of the book may have lost their precise implication as they passed into common language but such words as Newspeak, Doublethink, Room 101 and Thought Police take on a chilling reality in this compelling production.

To 27 March (0161 833 9833)