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1984 – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

From the book by George Orwell, adapted for stage by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan

Director: Mark Rosenblatt

Reviewer: Ruth Jepson


1984 - headlong“War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”

The book 1984 is a classic. Chances are you’ll have encountered it – read it, talked about it with friends, or even just by watching the housemates in ‘Big Brother’. For 1984 is where the whole idea that ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’ comes from.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s a dark imagining of what was a future (when the book was released in 1949) of total government control. Everyone is watched by shadowy government figures, all the time. Sound familiar? Deviation from the norm or disbelief in the company’s lies – a thought crime – is punished by torture and death. And in this world lives sceptical Winston (Mark Arends), who starts a secret liaison with Julia (Hara Yannas), someone else who doesn’t quite believe what’s going on.

Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company have joined forces to present an adaptation of the book which brings the idea of spying technology right to the forefront. A huge screen dominates Chloe Lamford’s stage, and live video feeds show us snippets of Winston’s diary and close ups of the action on stage. Pre-recorded scenes also show his secret life, and the propaganda blared at the characters daily on their TV screens. Lighting is used to great effect to not only direct the attention of the audience, but also to disorientate it – sometimes the most effective scenes are those plunged into darkness, leaving the audience to imagine what is going on. Excellent job by lighting designer Natasha Chivers, and the ear drum blitzing sound from Tom Gibbons only serves to heighten it.

In this world, the actors seem almost a second thought. Arends plays the protagonist with aplomb, getting his emotional extremes spot on and presenting a wholly convincing picture of a man who isn’t quite sure of his own sanity anymore. Also worth watching for is Tim Dutton as high up O’Brien, especially in the infamous Room 101 scene. But often it is the background characters who are worth watching, especially in the repeated scenes, so you can catch the glitches that make you think twice about what is going on.

Just a few things let the show down. There isn’t an interval, but at one hour forty minutes run time it could really do with one, as the action does sag a little in the middle. It’s at this point you notice the actors sometimes over act, although make your own mind up about if that is on purpose to add to the feel of propaganda. Also, the constant switch from stage to screen is jarring, but this is redeemed as the actors begin to interact with the video feeds, when it becomes disconcertingly normal. After all, aren’t we all used to living behind a screen these days? If you’re reading this review, isn’t that what you’re doing right now?

Runs until Saturday 16th November

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