1984 is arguably the most famous dystopian political novel of all time. Orwell’s symbols, allegories and concepts have influenced a myriad of social commentators and left-wing ideologists for decades. In this new adaptation, presented by Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company, the cruelty and control, dominance and destruction implemented by Big Brother and the Party appears even more sinister and omnipresent than ever. This production places the themes of Orwell’s text under harsh scrutiny; the production is complex and intricate, an interrogation into both the days of the Party and its aftermath. Although an inevitably dark and heavy performance, 1984 is astonishingly successful in bringing Orwell’s text to the stage.
One day in Airstrip One, Oceania, Winston Smith – played by the talented Mark Arends – begins to write a diary. Increasingly disillusioned by Big Brother and the Party, Winston channels his anger and frustrations into writing – a rebellious act which renders him instantly a dead man. In constant fear of being caught by the Thought Police, Winston meets Julia, played by Hara Yannas, a fellow anti-Big Brother conspirator. Amidst a love affair ruled by fear and oppression, Winston and Julia attempt to join the Brotherhood, an organisation dedicated to implementing the downfall of Big Brother. However, in a world of Newspeak, double-thought and double-crossing, the two can trust no-one, not even one another, nor can they ever escape the omniscient gaze of Big Brother.
This production is truly innovative. The employment of hidden cameras and screens, carried by actors or placed on props, broadcasts close-ups of intense scenes, not only mirroring the telescreens of Oceania but implicating the audience in the covert spying and undercover deceptions that have become habitual during the Party’s regime. Manipulation of stage space is also a device which dismantles the fourth wall: the audience are simultaneously spectators, fellow conspirators and Big Brother’s spies, the many and constant eyes that track the life and actions of Winston and Julia from beginning to end.
Most notably, 1984 is fantastically slick: cold, stale utilitarian 1950s décor transforms in a scene change blasted with the spasms of light, strobes and the shrieks of sirens into a sleek, ghostly-white Room 101. It’s appropriate that it is in this sterile, clinical interior that Winston is to be cleansed of his defective memory. In one of the most uncomfortable torture scenes I have ever seen on stage, Winston is left utterly inhuman, his ideals shattered by the torturers of Room 101, and his life torn apart by his own confessions – his very own words. In fact, in Icke and MacMillan’s new adaptation of Orwell’s most popular novel, it is the manipulation of language and words, “those most powerful agencies of autocratic oppression”, which reveals the true extent of Big Brother’s power, and the unconscious suffering of the people. “Beautiful thing, the destruction of words”, comrade Syme acknowledges shortly before his disappearance, and as tension is wound tighter and tighter it becomes clear that it only takes a single utterance, a stuttered syllable or whisper to condemn a man to death.
Throughout 1984, harrowing echoes, remnants of songs, fragments of memory and linguistic repetitions blur the distinction between the present and past. At many points the audience is left wondering if what they are seeing on stage is itself rooted in the reality of the play, or in another of Winston’s visions, or in memories that are trapped in a suffocating vacuum to be eventually destroyed, erased or un-created. In the canteen scenes, some of the most pivotal of the performance, the uncanny repetitious actions, words and glances become disturbingly familiar, with an ever ominous Charrington, played by Stephen Fewell, watching the action with beady, calculating eyes.
Bringing 1984 constantly into the present day throughout the performance, the trials of Winston Smith are repeatedly interjected by a book club discussing his diary, existing in a time after the Party has fallen. Yet its members are not unaffected by its power. They believe, as the Party would have wanted, that Winston Smith never existed. Does the Party therefore in fact invisibly remain, determining the reality of daily life? And thus, is the Party winning the fight for control over the collective reality? Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation of 1984 also asks the most potent question of all: will there always be curiosity and questions, or under the Big Brother’s watchful eye will human nature, or the ‘spirit of man’, decay into a form so submissive that even the very idea of autonomy will be un-created, un-believed and unwritten from the annals of time and existence? This performance is ambitious, but achieves its aim with clarity and effect that only a truly brilliant production can – and 1984, without doubt, is a brilliant production.