Writer: George Orwell (adapted by Robert Icke &Duncan Macmillan)
Directors: Robert Icke &Duncan Macmillan
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
George Orwell’s alarmingly prescient prediction of state surveillance and control is given a successful makeover by Headlong Theatre Company. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have taken on the difficult task of bringing this well told story to the stage with an ingeniously fresh and harrowingly convincing approach.
George Orwell’s tale of a totalitarian state taken to its limits has alarming relevance in today’s world. Barely a day passes without more concerns regarding commercial control of private information and state surveillance activities swirling around the headlines. The extent to which we all concede some privacy in exchange for security or even just a retail freebie and to whom we trust this information continues to be widely debated. Never has Orwell’s prediction felt so alarmingly close to reality. In fact at times during this performance, it feels like the only thing Orwell might have got wrong was the date.
Winston Smith lives a distorted life, working in the Records Department at the Ministry of Truth. His job is to manipulate files so that they meet current party lines. Any challenge to the state cannot be tolerated. Their thoughts are criminalised, they are physically executed and Winston simultaneously deletes their existence from the records. People simply become unpeople. Winston is good at his job but on the inside he secretly wants to rebel against state intrusion. He starts an illicit romance with Julia. Romantic relations are disapproved of as the result may conflict with loyalty to the state.
Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation puts the manipulation of language in the spotlight. Words such as “doublethink” – believing something you know not to be true are promoted by this state. Even limiting the amount of words in the vocabulary is discussed as an objective – why use bad when you can use ungood? The lovers concede they may need to betray each other, but comfort one another by telling themselves, “it doesn’t matter what you say.” This approach magnifies the power of Orwell’s warning. Distortions of language allows the state to evade challenges to its activities. Thus, Ministry of Truth is the state propaganda service and Ministry of Love is where the thought police interrogate and torture their subjects.
It is here that Winston and Julia ultimately find themselves after their doomed relationship is uncovered. Tim Dutton as O’Brien, the interrogator, is chillingly threatening. The dull browns of the previous scenes are transformed to a blazing white torture chamber in Chloe Lamford’s set. The correction of Winston is harrowing, the violence is not simply implied but enacted in all its bloody mess. The action here is made even more horrendous by the imaginative use of light and sound, directed by Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons respectively. The audience is quite literally locked in with Winston too – there is no interval in this production and the interrogation starts at just the point where you feel you might need a 15 minute break as a reprieve from the mounting underlying menace.
Acting from Matthew Spencer and Mandi Symonds is fine although they come short of convincingly creating the sexual chemistry between Winston and Julia which would lead them to put themselves in such danger. Their meeting later after each admitted their betrayal and how it changed their feelings towards the other underlines Orwell’s main message – words do matter.
Icke and Macmillan adhere to their theme about the manipulation of words by ingeniously bookending this version of 1984 with a literary club studying Winston’s diary at sometime in the future after 2050. Perhaps there is hope for this society after all. But for Winston, fingerprints removed and officially deleted, he does not appear to have even existed. Chilling.
Runs until Sat 13th September 2014