George Orwell was way ahead of his time when he published the book 1984 in 1949 — and now in 2015, it remains as joltingly prescient as ever. Here's a portrait of a world constantly at war, and in which its citizens are being kept under minute surveillance by the state. These conditions have only become amplified since Orwell first wrote his terrifying novel, with the kind of global state surveillance afforded by computers exposed by Edward Snowden; while ghastly state-sanctioned torture continues unabated, even amongst supposedly civilised countries like America as we found out at Guantanamo Bay.
The return of Robert Ickle and Duncan Macmillan's mesmerising stage version of the book, first seen in 2013 in Nottingham and London's Almeida which then played an extended West End season at the Playhouse last year, is a reminder, if we need one, that we need to be constantly vigilant. And this is a production that keeps one in a constant state of high alert tension.
Framed by a book club reading of the book, it takes us deep into the mind of Winston Smith — a place that will itself be found guilty of thoughtcrimes, as Orwell so memorably dubbed them. In fact, so many of the terms that he invented in 1984 have become popular currency, like doublethink, unperson-ing and Big Brother, and the play is a haunting, disturbing journey from 'normality' to the dreaded Room 101.
All of this is given vivid theatrical life in the arresting design scheme of Chloe Lamford, Natasha Chivers, Tom Gibbons and Tim Reid (sets, lighting, sound and video respectively), creating a total theatre experience. It's a show that blows apart the safe conventions of the West End play — a really bold and brilliant piece of mainstream experimental theatre.
This review relates to a previous production:
Our rating: 4/5
Date: Sunday, February 16, 2014
George Orwell's 1984 was a futuristic fantasy when it was first published in 1949. But it turned out to not only be eerily prescient but positively prophetic about the surveillance society we now live in. And it has provided many of the terms of reference with which we routinely describe aspects of it, like Big Brother and doublethink, Thought Police and Thoughtcrimes, Room 101 and Newspeak. Of course, some of those terms have also become hugely debased; as The Guardian's Stuart Jeffries, quoted in the programme, says, Orwell's "once-visionary keywords have grotesque afterlives: Big Brother is a TV franchise to make celebrities of nobodies and Room 101 is a light-entertainment show on BBC2 currently hosted by Frank Skinner for celebrities to witter about stuff that gets their goat."
Now a new stage adaptation of 1984, though, gets more than your goat; it gets right under your skin, even as our hero Winston finds the authorities literally trying to get under his as they subject him to violent and extreme torture in an effort to control his mind, independent thought and feelings. It's brutal, chilling and at times almost unwatchably watchable. It's exactly the kind of paradoxical feelings that Orwell's vision itself inspires.
Headlong, the vibrant contemporary theatre company that Rupert Goold used to head up before he took over the Almeida last year, have boldly and ambitiously filleted the novel to provide a theatrical version that is spellbinding in its intensity. Co-produced with Nottingham Playhouse, where it was premiered last year, it now receives its London premiere at the Almeida.
Perspectives endlessly shift in this version, created by Robert Icke (who also directs) and playwright Duncan Macmillan, that tells of the doomed love affair between Winston and Julia in a world in which love and romance has been formally outlawed, along with much else that makes us human.
Of course there's one more paradox: the theatre -- that shared place where we come to share stories -- is another thing that makes us intensely human. And Icke's multi-media production, with video design by Tim Reid supplementing (and sometimes usurping) the live action, is a thrilling rollercoaster of mood, motion and emotion. This is one of the most spellbinding yet troubling theatre events in town, because it both reminds us of the power of theatre -- and what we are in danger of losing.
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, we're all living in the world Orwell foresaw now. And as another quote in the programme, from CNN's Lewis Beale, has it, "In 1984, nearly all public and private places have large TV screens that broadcast government propaganda, news and approved entertainment. But they are also two-way monitors that spy on citizens' private lives. Today websites like Facebook track our likes and dislikes, and governments and private individuals hack into our computers and find out what they want to know. Then there are the ever-present surveillance cameras that spy on the average person as they go about their daily routine."