Sometimes it can feel as if everyone in the theatre business is in on playing an elaborate game of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone can see the naked truth about a production, but nonetheless they create a fanfare so loud that all join in decrying its superlative brilliance. Feeling as though you’re possibly the only one to see through these fabrications can be an unsettling experience – one asks oneself what everyone else is seeing that you are not? Am I wrong? Or missing the point? Or does everyone feel the same but know they dare not admit it?
This was my experience of Duncan MacMillan and Rob Icke’s version of George Orwell’s 1984, now running at the Playhouse Theatre, a show which was a smash hit last year across the country and in the West End, and as a result is now to embark on a world tour. And in the same vein as our protagonist Winston fears the Thought Police discovering and punishing him for his mental dissent, a critic can worry that disagreeing with the extraordinary critical reception a show has received makes her a Thought criminal of sorts. But what Winston (Matthew Spencer) fights for is integrity: to believe that even to be alone in the surety your sanity can validate that very sanity, and so this critic will stick to her guns: despite the fanfare, the acclaim and popular demand this show has seen, she found 1984 hard to enjoy.
In any form of storytelling, clarity is key: put simply, your audience needs to understand what is happening and why. And this crucial element was the first obstacle in the way of engaging with the play. With no knowledge of the book (which ought not to necessarily be a prerequisite) it is hard to grasp for the first 20 minutes what is going on. We have a meta-narrative of a reading group studying Orwell’s text, within which Winston’s own internal life and journey are explored. This opening sequence is punctuated by blackouts, repetition, voiceover, video and short scenes, which made the piece largely incomprehensible.
The production does hit its stride, and the story becomes somewhat clearer as it goes on: Winston meets Julia (Janine Harouni) and both connect over their hatred of, and wish to dismantle, the unforgiving surveillance state they inhabit. Their sudden burst of passion, and the relationship they go on to form, however, seems to erupt from nothing, and barely carries throughout due to a lack of any chemistry between the performers. There are some interesting supporting performances: Stephen Fewell as Charrington and Christopher Patrick Nolan as Martin often draw the eye, but overall it is hard to care for any of the characters, most notably Wilson, the somewhat two-dimensional characterisation offering little to grasp onto.
Of course, 1984 touches on incredibly important points: the role of the past in shaping our identity and the danger of forgetting; the idea of civil liberties and the state’s responsibility to grant these to its citizens; betrayal, love, selfishness, and more. But much of this feels didactic rather than dramatic, particularly in the gory final throes of the production, where O’Brien (Tim Dutton) punishes Winston for his crimes. Here, we are essentially told what to think and what to make of it all – a great irony given that this is what the play seeks to highlight as wrongdoing on this tyrannical state’s part.
Equally there are plenty of interesting ideas around its staging and theatricality, powerful images and inventive solutions to the problems that adapting the novel throws up. These come thick and fast, but to the point where the barrage of noise, blinding lights, frequent and often lengthy filmed sequences, and elaborate set changes, end up further clouding the story, text and meaning. Indeed, at points, particularly after being repeatedly blinded, their culmination simply made the experience of watching the show quite unpleasant.
But again, people seemed to leave the theatre thrilled, and as it embarks on its world tour the show will no doubt continue to garner acclaim in the same vein as it has been. It’s possible this reviewer is the one dissenting voice in a cacophony of well-earned praise. Or, as Julia does every day for the “Two Minutes of Hate”, maybe those who shout the loudest about its merits laugh inwardly the hardest. Who knows? The lesson being: when you go and see this show, don’t think as you are told – make up your own mind.
1984 is playing at the Playhouse Theatre until 5 September. For tickets and more information, see the Playhouse Theatre website.