Writer: George Orwell
Adaptor/Creator: Robert Icke &Duncan Macmillan
Reviewer: David Noble
How to start a 1984 review without waffling endlessly about what is often regarded as the greatest work of 20th century literature? Somewhat unavoidable it seems, but Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of 1984 for the stage does unusually start and end with a literary analysis of the novel – (cue the well-worn book club tropes and clichés). Indeed, the pair have dug out Orwell’s appendix to the book which hints at an end to the ‘party’ at some point in the 21st century, clinging desperately to one line: “the final adoption of Newspeak had been fixed for so late a date as 2050”. This change of emphasis enables them to frame their production around this deviation of perspective, hence the bookends depicting futuristic literature seminars, and a cynic might say that this contrivance is just a cheap ploy to smudge their own fingerprints onto Orwell’s classic. Nevertheless! Do not let this ten minutes of puzzling appendage detract from what was a technically excellent and relentless surge of theatre.
truly, 1984 is a meticulously thought out and supremely delivered production. A large screen that hangs at the rear of the stage is utilised throughout and is connected to a handheld video camera that among other things shows Winston and Julia, played by Mark Arends and Hara Yannas respectively, in their secret love nest. This is a nuanced and interesting means of highlighting the atmosphere of paranoia that lays at the centre of the piece, but what is ultimately the shows stand-out – the superb choreography: scenes inside the Ministry of Truth are dazzlingly strong, and the potency of the scene in the woods, in which the set’s literally torn to pieces, will live long in the memory.
However, one cannot hide my ambivalence towards is the use of sound and lighting effects in the production (designed by Tom Gibbons and Natasha Chivers). While the use of light and sound to literally blind and deafen the audience possibly feeds into the battery to the senses received by Winston, this is generally a little heavy-handed and underpinned a lack of empathy at the core of the production – indeed, as an emotionally astute audience member One feels I can relate to Winston’s plight without being dazzled to the point of migraine or clubbed in the cochlea by interminable feedback and bass sounds. Perhaps this overbearing bludgeoning of the eyes and ears was a consequence of a solid, if not mesmerising, performance from Mark Arends, and his slightly unconvincing relationship with Julia? Certainly, if you like your Winston Smith’s fat, ugly and varicose-veined look away now.
1984 is, however, an excellent production, and I am nitpicking to some degree. Tim Dutton as O’Brien was utterly fantastic; his monumental BBC accent echoes sonorously throughout all the nooks and crevices of the Playhouse and conveys a level of dread and apprehension that comprehensively floors the quick shock factor of blinding lights and deafening reverberations. A remarkable performance. This sums up the whole evening quite suitably though, a central pillar of brilliance in both acting and stage management toppled by an eagerness to over-embellish what could have stood alone as phenomenal theatre.