Chip, chop. Chip, chop. There’s an ice cream van that passes by my flat every afternoon. As it sidles up the street it plays a tinny version of Oranges and Lemons, ever so slightly out of time – and it is, without question, one of the eeriest things I have ever heard.
This same unsettling refrain ribbons through Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s vice-like reworking of George Orwell’s novel and it is similarly chilling, a lilting, lurching little melody which makes the skin prickle, a child’s rhyme populated by a city’s ghosts, the wink of history. Icke’s work is often concerned with time and its passing, his productions full of repetitions, ripples and echoes. This fluidity, this shifting, slippery quality, was there in Icke’s Romeo and Juliet and is used to even more potent effect here. There are shades of JB Priestley in the way he plays with temporal (this, to my mind, is a good thing).
Icke and Macmillan have taken Orwell’s Appendix and merged it with the events of the novel, creating a world where nothing is solid, where the past, present and future are entangled, where history is continually being rewritten. So Winston Smith’s story has become the subject of discussion for a group of people at some future point in time, his life a document, a thing to be read, but also to be questioned. There are layers upon layers here, fine tracings.
Cocooned within this is Winston Smith himself – played in this iteration by Matthew Spencer – a man whose job it is to rewrite the past. His hatred of the Party and the total control they have over the world in which he lives leads him first into a doomed affair and finally into the beckoning arms of the Ministry of Love. Icke and Macmillan’s reading of the text is a very active one; they present it as a narrative while examining and unpicking it at the same time. It’s as much a reanimation as an adaptation, a living thing.
It’s also a fascinating production to watch with Icke’s Oresteia fresh in the mind. As a director he clearly has ideas and devices he favours, things at which he likes to pick, and at the moment it feels genuinely exciting to see how he will deploy them and to what ends. His 1984 has a similarly expressionistic quality to his Oresteia to begin with and, like that production, it also contains a number of sickening jolts. The man understands fear and tension, the power of the sudden cut to black, he knows how to place a small child on stage and make their very presence ominous, something he would do with even more potent results in the Oresteia. There are moments here which are almost physically difficult to watch, where the threat and menace seeps off the stage and infects the audience, where it’s hard not to bodily recoil at what is being enacted in front of you, to shrink from it.
So much of the production’s potency comes from Chloe Lamford’s intelligent set design. It too is a thing of layers. Initially it takes the shape of a nondescript office or archive, with wood panelled walls and functional chairs, suggestive of the past whilst also refusing to root the production in any particular time or place. Other locations are revealed to the audience via video footage – this is how much of Julia and Winston’s relationship plays out, on screens above the stage. We are seeing through the eyes of Big Brother – watching, watching, always watching – but also seeing with our own eyes, intruding on their intimacy. The words ‘hate’ and ‘thought criminal’ flash up on these screens too, dwarfing those below.
In the final quarter of the show Icke plays his ace. The entire stage undergoes a transformation; everything falls away, everything empties and Winston is all that is left. There is nowhere for him to run, nowhere for him to turn other than the embrace of his interrogators. This is also the moment where Icke and Macmillan’s production seems to insist on its relevance most heavily, in these scenes of torture, in the rewriting of the mind. But even while doing so it remains a masterful exercise in how to stage horror – tight as a wire, properly nasty, hard to sit through without wincing.
Spencer is great as Winston Smith, but it’s not a role that requires fireworks, instead he shows us convincingly a man being broken, in every sense. But while it might lack a performance of such wrenching depth as Lia Williams and Angus Wright’s in the Oresteia, this is still a bold and thrilling piece of stagecraft, questioning and necessarily unsettling.
Tim Bano’s review of the Oresteia
Exeunt’s interview with Robert Icke