‘You know this already’. O’Brien’s assertion reverberates around the cultural echo-chamber that is Orwell’s 1984; it is the cult of the Party ingrained in Winston’s head, it is a text lauded for its unwavering prescience. As Martin (Christopher Patrick Nolan) puts it in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s riveting adaptation, ‘it’s a vision of the future no matter when it’s being read’.
This co-production between Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and the Almeida Theatre brilliantly exposes the ambiguity of this phrase by stripping away such assumptions around the text. In recovering the appendix, which repositions 1984 as an historical document, subject to misprision and writerly unreliability, a general sense of futurity is upgraded for a potent interrogation of credence and authority. This illumination of an old artifact shines throughout the entire production. Chloe Lamford’s design is littered with reflective surfaces: Natasha Chivers’ lighting dances off O’Brien’s glasses; spoons furtively polished by Stephen Fewell’s Charrington. As these surfaces fade and Winston’s future grows dim, Charrington begins to polish the chairs, made grimly portentous in the light of Syme’s disappearance. In his doubling as a host of an imagined gathering long in the future, ruminating on the diary’s authenticity, he enters and exits with a hand tightly gripping a light switch, plunging proceedings into light and darkness. The windows behind which Tim Dutton’s supremely controlled O’Brien stalks grow dim with dust by turns, only to be shined by a cleaner whistling about oranges and lemons; a desk-lamp illuminates the diary, but is turned in on itself to only partially give out its glare. The design blends perfectly with Tom Gibbons’ sound, a masterpiece in peaks and troughs. Blasts of noise shatter the auditorium, even switching off the emergency exits, but there is a delicacy too which, like the piece as a whole, serves to undermine the cultural bombast that engulfs 1984. Voices are occasionally put over the microphone on stage, while the quietest sound is the gentle bleep of a crucial photo being erased – unassuming, but all the more powerful for being so.
Matthew Spencer’s Winston is imbued with a watchfulness that constantly tips over into neurosis; his jolting in and out of nightmare foreshadows the aggression with which he betrays Janine Harouni’s steely, alluringly pragmatic Julia who is disappointingly – though not critically – under-written. Winston’s confusion is brilliantly exposed by the transition into the Ministry of Love, all bright lights and white walls, as the set is literally stripped away. The machine is revealed, right back to the masking, and Winston’s blood shines crimson against the background. Tellingly, O’Brien’s fingertips also appear bandaged. The movement as a whole unerringly treads the line between the natural and the choreographed; Nolan’s Martin sweeps with the deadness of a robot, but it is Charrington’s awkward shuffle that betrays the brokenness of a man controlled. The temporal fluidity of the piece does occasionally cause moments of confusion and difficulty, but as with Simon Stephens’ Carmen Disruption – a play that tested the limitations of empathy to the point of alienating that of the audience – Icke and Macmillan’s refusal to temper their vision out of reverence to theatrical convention is to be applauded, rather than derided.
Icke and Macmillan have achieved something paradoxical – a doublethink of a production whose newness comes in what is already there. Their text is littered with references to darkness and light: O’Brien tells Winston ‘we will meet in the place where this no darkness’; Winston and Julia will be ‘fighting in the dark’ as members of the brotherhood; Winston is constantly asking whether it is ‘switched off’. Astute in their reluctance to modernise and update, Icke and Macmillan delve back into the text itself in order to illuminate some limited assumptions around 1984.
Review by James Hansen
April, 1984. 13:00. Comrade 6079, Winston Smith, thinks a thought, starts a diary, and falls in love. But Big Brother is always watching.
Orwell’s ideas have become our ideas; his fiction is often said to be our reality. The ‘definitive book of the 20th century’ (The Guardian) is re-examined in a radical new staging exploring surveillance, identity and why Orwell’s vision of the future is as relevant now as ever.
Nominated for Best New Play at the 2014 Olivier Awards.
The Playhouse Theatre
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes (No Interval)
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 14+
Show Opened: 12th June 2015
Booking Until: 5th September 2015
Important Info: Latecomers will not be admitted.
This production contains loud noises and flashing lights.
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Saturday 20th June 2015