People everywhere are protective of Orwell’s classic novel of totalitarian horror, and due to its unending reverence, adaptations are often closely scrutinised. In this vivid stage production, however, directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan are faithful to Orwell’s masterpiece, exacerbating its warning themes of tyrannical oppression in an unbelievably fresh and appalling manner.
Framed by a plot where academics from the future find the diary of Winston Smith, employee at the Ministry of Truth, and attempt to work out whether the tyrannical rule of Big Brother was fictional or indeed a sinister snapshot of the past, Winston’s journey begins as one of metaphysical scrutiny and torment. Played by Andrew Gower in his west-end debut, Winston is executed with painful precision, and his deterioration is played out with suspense, yet inevitability. From his existential thoughts at the start of the play, unconvincing love for Julia and complete mental annihilation in Room 101, he is portrayed as being unendingly debilitated. Catrin Stewart as the rebellious Julia, however, is utterly effervescent, and seems to be the only character on stage with some vim and vigour; her energy contrasts sharply to the weak, tormented portrayal of Winston, who stumbles around the stage in a state of perpetual fear. In the stomach-churning, bloody scenes of the clinical Room 101, Winston could easily be sat in a psychiatrist’s chair, at the mercy of Angus Wright’s schoolmasterly O’Brien.
Tom Gibbons’ manipulation of sound, which elsewhere has won him an Olivier award, is phenomenal; it contributes enormously to the feeling of claustrophobia, felt not only by the audience, packed tightly into the rows of the Playhouse Theatre, but the cast onstage, reminded constantly of the idea of time; time running out; things being irregular; the clocks striking thirteen, not twelve; indeed, the play’s running time of 101 minutes cleverly epitomises this.
Natasha Chivers’ lighting contributes further to the strength of this extraordinary production. Side-stage light bars, which flash and buzz on and off sporadically, gives the effect of what the Huffington Post describes as “Orwell on speed;” a disorienting, blinding vision of Winston’s mental unrest. The way in which the audience members are continuously plunged into darkness for a moment or two, and then for the lights to come on and for the stage to be populated with numerous characters where it seems impossible for them to have made it to that spot in such a short space of time, exacerbates the feeling of omniscient surveillance, and of eyes being everywhere. “We will meet in the place where this is no darkness” is a significant line in the play, and the way in which inner party member O’Brien cruelly ironises this sense of hope in the blindingly bright Room 101 is the perfect depiction of how the binary opposition of light and dark can indeed be blurred by the abhorrent pseudophilosophy of Oceania.
The scenes where Winston and Julia sneak into a room absent from any telescreens are held in an off-stage hideout, witnessed by the audience only through a shaky surveillance camera shown on the above-stage projection; it makes us, the audience, the telescreens; as we observe them, we unsettlingly become the voyeuristic eyes of Big Brother, reinforcing its ubiquity in the most unexpected of places. Although the play’s narrative at times is incoherent, this possible downfall can indeed be interpreted as the devastating loss of language in the form of ‘newspeak,’ and the confusion it can ravage.
Indisputably one of the most important pieces of literary political fiction ever, 1984 is ceaselessly relevant to this day; words such as “austerity” flash on the projections above the stage, affecting us today thanks to our Tory government; endless war; the ubiquity of surveillance; even Big Brother’s cult of personality can be found in these times, in the form of North Korea and the deified Kim Jong-un.
Wonderfully gimmicky, with 101 tickets for each performance being sold for £19.84 and a running time of 101 minutes, this production is an unsettlingly fresh look at Orwell’s dystopian classic, which addresses the well-known themes whilst raising new questions and concerns.
You can book tickets at 64% off using the following link:
Images by Manuel Harlan