Blinking, I stepped out of the theatre and into the sunlight. My mind, my senses were all on edge. I had been taken over by a temporary state of suspicion: seeing through new eyes the supermarket tills that record each purchase we make, the CCTV cameras that watch us as we ride the tube, the iPhone in my pocket, its GPS tracker logging my every move. Is Big Brother still watching, I wonder?
The reason for my narrowed eyes and furtive sidelong glances at bemused passers-by? I’d just been to see Headlong Theatre’s production of 1984, an astonishing adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. Having sold out its Olivier-award winning run at the Almeida last year, directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have brought their slick, brutal and sophisticated production to the Playhouse Theatre for 12 weeks.
1984 tells the story of a dictatorship in the nation of Oceania, formerly Britain, where the ruling political party, run by the enigmatic Big Brother, is so intent on controlling citizens that they begin to shrink their language, and persecute them for their thoughts. Winston Smith, played by Matthew Spencer, is a civil servant who works at the Ministry of Truth. His job is to ‘unwrite’ people from history – to delete anyone, and anything, that does not suit the objectives of the ruling Party. But Winston begins to question his orders, the repetition, and the censorship of his every thought and action. The tipping point is when he falls in love. Unfortunately for Winston, the flame of love actually leads to a crackling stick of dynamite.
The ensemble are seamless in their transition from scene to scene, and each part is played with verve and precision. Matthew Spencer is fantastically anguished in the role of Winston, and his counterpart Janine Harouni as Julia is strong, sultry and enigmatic. In a scene where Julia and Winston illicitly meet in the countryside, the atmosphere was so charged between the two leads that their sexual desire was palpable from the auditorium seats.
Throughout the play’s 101 minutes’ duration, the audience is flooded with sensory overload – from chiming bells and blinding floodlights to deafening bangs and crashes. The magnificent collaboration of Designer Chloe Lamford, Natasha Chivers on Lighting, Tom Gibbons on Sound, and Tim Reid on Video is as disorientating for the audience as it is for Winston.
The audience experiences what Winston feels: so much so that when Winston is sent to room 101, it’s almost unbearable to watch. Tim Dutton, as O’Brien, is calculated, suave and unrelenting. A perfect torturer.
It’s a many layered, complex production with a faultless cast, a set that morphs from a beautiful wood panelled library to a clinical and empty torture cell in seconds, and terrific sound and lighting bringing every scene to life.
The power of this production is in its relevance. The torture scenes, so abhorrent, sadly reflect scenes around the world today. The horrors of Abu Ghraib, perpetrated by Westerners, aren’t so far removed from the mental and physical torture that Winston goes through. Orwell’s play was written as a warning of what the future could be, if we weren’t careful. But maybe what directors Icke and Macmillan are saying is that in some respects Orwell’s nightmare has already become reality. We’re already there.
Review by Emma Slater
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.
Please note: Latecomers will not be admitted. This production contains loud noises and flashing lights.
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes (No Interval)
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 14+
Show Opened: 12th June 2015
Booking Until: 5th September 2015
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Tuesday 1st July 2015