Writer: George Orwell
Adapted and created by: Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Reviewer: Harry Stern
From a 2014 perspective, Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece stubbornly refuses to lie down and become the misguided outpourings of a mid-20th Century political and societal misanthropist. With revelations about phone hacking, government surveillance and Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing activities still current, how could it?
The real accomplishment of Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation and production is in the ability to deliver Orwell’s vision in a stage version that uses a style of artistry that reflects seamlessly the intent of the book and remains entirely consistent with the Orwellian palette. No small achievement. There will be those that cavil about what has been left out. Some might wonder why Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree has been replaced by Oranges and Lemons. But this is the nature of adaptations of novels for the stage. Be under no illusions, it is remarkably successful. The work onstage is a terrific adaptation of a book whose messages transcend the sixty-four years since its publication.
At the production’s heart is a simple narrative of individualism caught up in the machinations of an all-dominant state. Winston and Julia’s love story is rather prosaic. There is no romance and little poetry in it. It’s the context that makes it so heroic. Winston works for a department of historical revisionism, rewriting history for the benefit of the state that manipulates everything. Julia has all the appearance of being a state apparatchik. Yet both commit Thought Crimes. Both have doubts and seemingly rebel against Big Brother and his cohort. Their ultimate entrapment and subsequent cleansing in the horror that is Room 101 is theatrically thrilling and terrifyingly believable.
The success of the production is, to no little degree, the result of the work of a creative team in tune with the essential textures of the book. There is a mix of live and electronic media with the dominant video design of Tim Reid offering a real sense of the state’s ubiquitous surveillance. Tom Gibbon’s soundscape suggests that it is the result of an edict to control both participants and onlookers. Chloe Lamford’s set is, by turns, both historically tawdry and the institutional white of a leadership that wishes to expunge the past. Natasha Chivers’ lighting reflects the ambition of the set and there is a truly astonishing moment when the audience is first introduced to Room 101 and its blazoning white light.
The acting is strong, though curiously featureless. This is either a production choice or it is the result of the director paying too much attention to the feel of the thing at the expense of its content. The biggest problem is in the lack of variety. There is lots of shade but very little light. People feel as though they are wandering through a nightmare rather than being real folk caught in the state’s web of power and control. There is an element of two dimensions rather than three. Yet all are plausible within the context of the piece. Tim Dutton’s O’Brien is a beautifully controlled, smooth monster of the establishment. Stephen Fewell offers us a slyly conspiratorial Charrington and at the centre Mark Arends and Hara Yannas carry the main responsibility for the narrative with a central seriousness which compels our attention and sympathy.
This is, indisputably, an important novel and this production is a compelling and important evening in the theatre.
Photo: Alastair Muir
Runs until 29th March