Writer: George Orwell
Adapters and directors: Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan
Reviewer: Dave Smith
It’s now more than 65 years since George Orwell wrote his vision of a dystopian future of a society where the state is able to constantly monitor and control its citizens in the name of national security, and more than 30 years have passed since the time in which he set it. Few, if any, novels since have penetrated our language and culture so successfully.
This production debuted to great acclaim two years ago at Nottingham Playhouseand now returns following equally successful runs in the West End and the Almeida and on a UK tour.
Headlong’s version of 1984 is a loud, flashy, unsettling and at times harrowing experience, and one that’s not for the faint-hearted. It manages to disorient its audience from the very start, with suggestions that it might eschew the traditional narrative and raise doubts about exactly where Winston Smith is on his journey from silent rebel to committed revolutionary to tortured prisoner. The question ‘Where are you, Winston?’ crops up early, to return again and again, and draw us to the place we already know he must inevitably end up, Room 101.
The first half is played out in a functional, almost comforting, environment that acts all at once as Winston’s room, his office canteen and the antiques shop where he and his lover Julia seek the privacy they need to rebel against the Party. Once they are arrested, however, the set is taken apart in a blaze of light, noise and action to reveal a stark, blinding and intimidating place. It’s an impressive transformation.
The scenes between Winston and O’Brien in Room 101 are difficult to watch but played out magnificently; there’s no wonder that Matthew Spencer, who plays Winston, looks so worn out at the end of it all. His performance combines perplexity, purpose and eventually pain in a way that makes him the heart of everything that goes on. Tim Dutton gives Winston’s chief torturer O’Brien the perfect mix of malevolence and parental concern – you really do get the feeling that he could be doing it all for Winston’s own good – while Janine Harouni, more than impressive in her first professional performance, is equally engaging as Winston’s less tortured, more carefree partner in rebellion, Julia.
Not that it’s by any means perfect. Scenes played out by Winston and Julia on video rather than on stage seem a little longer than necessary – we get the point, they are being watched, but this is theatre. Meanwhile, the decision to occasionally have the cast play the rôles of a group of people in a post-Big Brother timeframe discussing Winston Smith’s diary as a historical/fictional document, doesn’t really add enough to the overall mix to feel necessary.
On the other hand, repeated workplace scenes with slight variations (including the disappearance of ‘unpersoned’ co-workers), and pretty much the whole of the second half of the performance, are imaginative and visceral theatre at its very best. Highly recommended.
Photo: Manuel Harlan | Runs until 26 September 2015 then on tour