By Gemma Tadman, Arts Editor
Surveillance. Identity. Control. You would not be mistaken for thinking these words ascribe today’s society. But these three words ascend from the darkly dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984. Sixty-seven years after the novel’s original publication, the concerns of Orwell’s masterpiece are still relevant today, in our own society of CCTV and oppressive organisations. Under the direction of Olivier Award-winning Robert Icke, and Olivier Award-nominee Duncan Macmillan, the theatre adaptation of 1984 has returned to England after enjoying international success.
Orwell’s 1984, which follows the harrowing journey of Winston Smith (Andrew Gower), is given an interesting revamp diverting the play from the original frame of the novel. Events are framed within the meeting of a book club in 2050, who meet to discuss Winston’s personal diary of the year 1984. The audience watch on as Winston attempts to rebel against the tyrannical organization ‘Big Brother’, whilst dodging the ‘Thought Police’ and attempting to avoid the dreaded ‘Room 101’. It is at work in the Ministry of Truth that Winston meets and falls in love with fellow rebel Julia, thereafter the pair quickly find themselves having more independent thoughts and joining the inscrutable Brotherhood, a secret organisation designed to overthrow Big Brother. But Big Brother is always watching. He knows every thought you have ever had and ever will have, and the lovers soon discover that they will never be alone.
Under Icke and Macmillan’s meticulous direction, the audience are frequently unsettled by scene shifts between the book club’s analysis, and Winston’s own present. The distance offered by the book club plants the seed of doubt regarding Winston’s sanity: does he imagine the book club? Does his diary hold any truth whatsoever? What events are actually true in the play?
Such subversions of temporalities and character positions confuses the audience of what is real, and reveals Winston’s own confusion of reality and truth. Natasha Chivers’ clever use of lighting, Tom Gibbons’ sound, and Tim Reid’s use of video, help to blur these transitions between past, present and future. In line with Orwell’s prose style, these devices are used in ways that do not make for an easy viewing experience. Instantaneously lights will transform the stage from absolute darkness to eye-ball-burning white. Room 101 is made to feel stark, immediate, and unnerving by bright white lights. Ominous silences are broken by loud and sudden blasts, making the audience jump out of their seats. But at times these theatrical techniques become too much.
If you have ever read 1984 you will know that the story is all about disorientation, with strong emphasis on lack of clarity or sense, but sometimes, especially for audience members’ not familiar with the novel, the play feels a bit ‘overkill’, and the production falters as a result. The interruptions of light and sound are not always needed for effect, and consequently break concentration, reducing total immersion in the viewing experience.
For those theatregoers whom enjoy less passive viewing, the show allows one to test the mind and, as quoted by The Guardian, “raises serious questions,” that will leave you deep in thought.
I give the show a 3.5 rating out of 5.
This article was published in our September 2016 issue.