Features Q&A and Interviews Published 15 September 2013

Plunging Headlong into 1984

Robert Icke is an Associate Director of Headlong. His previous productions include Romeo and Juliet and Ella Hickson's Boys and his adaptation of Orwell's 1984 opens this week at Nottingham Playhouse.
Lauren Mooney

Headlong’s national tour of 1984 comes in what has already been a very big year for the company. Their acclaimed production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica – a co-production with the Almeida – transferred to the West End over the summer and it was announced that Jeremy Herrin would be taking over as artistic director, when Rupert Goold leaves to take up his new post at the Almeida.

The company has a policy of programming reworkings of “big canonical texts” alongside new writing, of tackling huge, culturally embedded works like Romeo and Juliet and Medea – and, now, Orwell’s 1984. When I manage to pin down director Robert Icke for a chat, he sounds deceptively calm, but is actually in the middle of a pretty full day. His cast have already done a full run of their show and will probably do another this afternoon, and in the meantime they’re using their lunch break to play an intense-sounding round of the Green Diamond Game. When I ask what, exactly, that entails, Icke explains ambiguously that “it would be impossible and unwise to try and explain it over the phone without a series of diagrams.”

It’s important to Icke to encourage a sense of play and fun in his rehearsal rooms – “I don’t block any plays in the traditional sense,” he says – and when tackling a project as like his current one, an original approach seems wholly justified.

“It’s funny,” says Icke, “it’s a bit like doing Shakespeare – everyone will have a version of it in their heads that they think is it, and then there’s the sort of culturally agreed, printed version that you… Well, when we say 1984, your brain pushes up quite a lot of pictures.”

If any novel can be said to have seeped into the public consciousness, 1984 is surely the epitome of the phenomenon. Whenever the state intrudes too far into people’s privacy, it is ‘Orwellian’; if something is despised, it ‘belongs in Room 101’; and when public surveillance becomes excessive, ‘Big Brother,’ people say knowingly, ‘is watching’. Did Icke, as both co-adaptor of the script and director of the cast, find that intimidating?

“Well, firstly, the book is great,” says Icke, “and you want to do something that – we hope! – were Orwell still around he would like, and would think was a fair reflection, or a detailed and rigorous investigation, of what he was trying to do.” A truly successful adaptation, he points out fairly, is “often a very different thing from delivering the version people expect.”

As well as numerous stage versions – with recent productions including those by Northern Broadsides and Blind Summit – films were made in 1956 and, appropriately, 1984. Icke was keen to get away from the visual associations of previous versions. After going back to the book, he and his co-adaptor Duncan Macmillan “realised it was much more complicated than that – that it was going to be much more difficult than doing a straightforward science fiction play about a dystopian world.”

As the trailer shows, this is a production very aware of the novel’s continuing relevance, even beyond the ways in which it has become part of our mental furniture. It’s clear Icke isn’t thinking entirely about some fictional future when he describes the world of the novel as one “where you can’t trust the image, you can’t trust the photograph, you can’t trust the written record, you certainly can’t trust newspapers – so where do you get your information from? How do you know what to read and what to rely on and what to base your opinions and fears on?”

We discuss the culture of modern surveillance, the value of information, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning – and it quickly becomes clear that the attraction, for Icke, of adapting this 1949 novel at this very moment in the 21st century is how much it still has to say. It is a piece of work larger than itself, with an odd capability to tell us slightly different things as our culture continues to progress. The key thing, for Icke, is to “translate the idea” at the heart of Orwell’s writing, “to look at what his gesture is and what he’s trying to do, and then try to do the same thing – but you can’t do it by just copying and pasting him.”

One of the key ways in which Headlong’s 1984 differs from previous versions is that Icke and Macmillan are the first adaptors ever to tackle the novel’s appendix. After Orwell’s ghastly, haunting final lines, the appendix feels sudden and unexpected; several dense pages of rather academic prose about the development of Newspeak. Though oft-neglected and little commented upon, Orwell, who refused publishers’ requests to cut it from the novel’s American release, uses its dry historical style to subtly suggest a time in the recent future when Ingsoc has been overthrown.

“One of the things that’s fascinating about the appendix is it – in a brilliant way – throws into relief what the novel’s about,” says Icke. “What the nature of things are, what’s true, how you know what’s true.”

“Well, it makes it seem like a sort of historical piece, suddenly, doesn’t it?” I say. “It’s kind of an examination of the world they were living in, speaking about it in the past tense, as if it’s come to an end. And that makes you wonder whether the novel itself is supposed to be part of a study or…”

“Yeah,” says Icke, “and the text of the novel is subjective – it knows Winston’s thoughts, it knows how he’s feeling. I kept thinking it could have just been a first person diary, but making it third person really complicates that, because they say they destroy all records and documents, they tell Winston ‘you’re never going to make it into history ‘ – you know, in any sort of recorded sense – and yet, there’s Winston’s name in the appendix. Somehow, knowledge of Winston has made it through.”

This raises more questions than it answers, but then that’s what the appendix does, and why it will be so exciting to see Icke and Macmillan address it – especially since the depth of their passion and care becomes so evident so quickly just from speaking to Icke. If knowledge of Winston survived, when whole reams of people like him were employed simply to destroy records, what does this imply about the fate of the character, his ultimate importance? Ingsoc wanted to obliterate him – but there he is, held up as an example.

“One thing that’s come up a lot,” Icke tells me, “is what power an individual has,” and this leads so nicely on to one of the most hauntingly appropriate quotes the Headlong team have chosen to associate with their production, that just watching the trailer, days later, gives me chills. ‘I look back at my decisions,’ said Manning, ‘and wonder, how on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better.’

Headlong’s 1984 is at Nottingham Playhouse from 13th – 28th September, and then touring until 16th November 2013.

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Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and arts administrator based in London. As well as writing for Exeunt and The Stage, Lauren works at Clean Break and is the writer-producer for Kandinsky.

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