A confession: when I read 1984 as a 16 year old it did not fill me with excitement nor strike me as a particularly stimulating read. Never before has a play, or a film, pushed me towards re-reading the book upon which it was based. Except Headlong’s production of 1984. A new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillian.
The year is 1984 (he thinks) and Winston Smith (Mark Adends) is a party member under the authority of Big Brother; a dystopia dictatorship who strive to control all knowledge, speech and thought. Love of Big Brother is essential and enforced. Human love is outcasted. Winston believes he is alone, secretly hating the regime, until a young woman, Julia (Hara Yannas), hands him a note: ‘I love you’.
The play showed the past, the future and the present simultaneously alive and interacting with each other. Scenes set in 1984 and 2050 were interwoven together presenting, in a powerfully visual manner, Winston’s overarching motivation to begin his diary and to oppose Big Brother for the sake of the ‘unborn’. This time-mixing dramatized the repetitive nature of history; by holding onto the memory of the past, the past is kept alive. These choices left some audience members, particularly those who had not read Orwell’s book, highly flummoxed. Even those who had read it, but skipped the Appendix (which influenced this 1984/2050 mix), were also confused. Yet, I believe this was the production’s purpose; the time-woven scenes and repetitive canteen squeezes captured the uncertainty, fear and loss of reality, loss of individuality, the state of Big Brother installed in Winston.
The crux of the play, for me, was a focus on individual perception; a booming voice kept asking Winston where he thought he was. O’Brien’s (Tim Dutton) persistence that Big Brother will change what is inside Winston’s skull highlights that this is a story of loyalty to yourself; to your humanity which, by definition, embraces individuality. The production brought these themes and issues from Orwell’s 1984 which I, even after reading the book, did not fully appreciate. The production brought the full, crushing weight of Orwell’s novel crashing down upon its audience.
Headlong’s digital and technical elements were superb in installing the same confusion and uncertainty within Winston’s mind. The set was a normal looking room, wooden table and chairs, shelves of folders and papers. A line of frosted windows panned across the back wall. The room was belittled beneath an enormous white screen which maximised Winston’s diary writing and a video of his and Julia’s secret room. A pre-recorded video, obviously, cleverly synced with the action on stage. Or so we thought. But the moment Winston and Julia are discovered and arrested the audience’s sense of space and perception is utterly shattered, just as the truths Winston believes in, Charrington’s (Stephen Fewell) innocence, their safety in the room, O’Brien’s honesty, crumble and are exposed in the place where there is no light. The room is torn aside by masked soldiers, literarily ripped up and carried away, revealing the secret room behind, exposed and unprotected. And suddenly all is white plastic. An empty reality for Big Brother to fill.
This is an adaption which comments and debates with the original source. Which brings alive not just narrative but ideas. An immersive, powerful production.
Eve Wersocki Morris
1984 runs at the Nottingham Playhouse Main House until Saturday 28 September. For tickets and more information http://www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk/whats-on/drama/1984/