A few paragraphs after 1984’s famously disorienting opening line – “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” – George Orwell pulls the rug away again. As his protagonist, Winston Smith, prepares to defy Big Brother by starting a diary, he suddenly feels helpless. Although he’s written it down, he’s not even sure that the year is 1984. Headlong’s coldly brilliant adaptation of the novel insinuates itself into this moment of fundamental existential crisis and prises it open, casting a chilling doubt over everything.
From the first scene, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan tackle 1984’s off-stage cultural ubiquity head on in their vision of Orwell’s dystopia. An expressionless male voice narrates from the opening chapter as a video screen displays a close-up of the diary in which Winston (Mark Arends) is writing underneath. Then a deft theatrical sleight of hand changes everything: a brief blackout ends with Winston now accompanied by a readers’ group discussing the merits of the diary apparently more than 100 years after the regime has fallen.
Is this just a framing device or Winston’s mind splintering in the final moments of his resistance to Big Brother’s re-programming after he is arrested? Is it his deluded dream of a better future? Or do these complacent talking heads represent our deluded dream of a safely post-Orwell present? It’s deliberately never clear. Icke and Macmillan loop questions of truth, fiction and authorial identity into their exploration of the terrifying subjectivity of experience when someone else gets to decide the rules.
While it touches on state-sponsored paranoia and suppression, this production discards the treatment of Orwell’s story as straightforward social parable (it’s about Communism! It’s about Edward Snowden!) by breaking it into icy shards and scattering these moments indiscriminately through time. Filmed scenes of Winston hiding away with his lover, Julia, gesture at modern-day anxieties about government surveillance, while thankfully steering clear of clumsy reality TV references. But these are as much about Winston’s neurotic self-scrutiny as voyeurism.
Arends’ taut, nervy Winston stumbles repeatedly through the same encounter with colleagues at the Ministry of Truth like a victim of psychic shellshock. As characters who have been ‘un-personed’ disappear and others trip over cleaning trolleys no longer there, dark farce reigns. Characters appear at windows like figures from a horror film, haunting the fractured landscape of Winston’s mind.
Icke and Macmillan have taken Orwell’s enduringly horrible notion of a language designed purely to control perception – and thus identity – and made it a structural principle of the bleak architecture of their play. Nothing on stage is as it seems. The walls of designer Chloe Lamford’s stark, wood-panelled set lift up to reveal a hidden space where scenes you might have thought were pre-filmed have been performed live. Walls collapse with all the flimsiness of memories.
We’ve learned to distrust what we see long before O’Brien (a suave and evangelically cruel Tim Dutton) asks: ‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’ Throughout, the talented cast move with ominous precision, all the more menacing because of the explicit sense of rehearsal behind it all. There’s no past or future, just an endlessly revised ‘now’ that its authors will go to brutal lengths to maintain.
Uncompromising scenes of bloody torture and Winston’s body convulsing as he’s subjected to electric shock treatment ground the play in something visceral and real, which is much needed in a piece of theatre more effective at engaging the brain than the emotions. If this otherwise stunning production has any drawback, it’s that its fragmented nature lacks the grinding despair in Orwell’s pages that still resonates today. Nonetheless, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.