George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 was released more than 30 years before its title date and yet is more relevant in modern Britain than ever. The development and growth of technology, and the breaches of privacy it inevitably brings with it, have been under scrutiny for years.
This is particularly true lately, due to The Leveson enquiry, Edward Snowden, the NSA and Wikileaks. Revisiting this play in our current reality makes it clear just how vulnerable we are to state ownership and loss of individuality. It’s a truly terrifying thought, and Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse’s brutal delivery of this novel at the Almeida makes it feel uncomfortably close.
In Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation, the book’s timelessness makes it even more haunting. Marc Arends, as Orwell’s tortured anti-hero, Winston Smith, is in a fantastic, constant state of agitation, cleverly straddling sanity and clarity simultaneously. Arends’s delivery of the powerful lines resonated clearly through the theatre and stuck.
Winston’s secret hatred for his totalitarian state, which renders him a mere number, is freed when he falls in love with his co-worker at the Ministry of Truth where Winston retrospectively “un-persons” people to fit the current party line.
Julia, played by Hara Yannas, is memorable as Winston’s fiery fellow “thoughtcriminal”; fiery acts of defiance in her love for him were poignant and well played out. The complete disregard for the consequences, inevitably to be “un-personed” themselves, always lingers.
The artistic choices truly ought to be applauded; the different mediums of art are wonderfully blended together to deliver a truly immersive and multi-dimensional experience. Natasha Chivers’s lighting fit to bring on epileptic episodes, Tom Gibbons’s deafening bass-heavy sounds and Tim Reid’s use of live film all invite the audience to take a personal journey into Winston and Julia’s relationship. How very clever that their private love nest was supposed to be the only place without Big Brother’s all seeing eye, yet it is the only part shown on a screen through a camera lens. They were always being watched, even when they weren’t.
The tearing apart of the set to reveal the horrific torture of Winston, realising his worst nightmare, and reflecting the collapse of his own mind and resolve, was utterly brilliant. The very thing that will be make them triumphant is the same thing that will be their downfall – humanity.
It was however, incredibly difficult to see this, obviously reminiscent of the war Orwell had just come out of. This is a show to be watched by peeping through your fingers, but certainly it must be watched.
1984 is running until 29 March at the Almeida. For tickets and more information go to the Almeida Theatre website. Photo by Tristram Kenton.