Theatre | 1984 – Great production, but only for book readers

photo: West Yorkshire Playhouse

Big Brother. Room 101. The images and concepts established by George Orwell in his dystopian novel, 1984, have entered popular culture and become so incorporated into our everyday lives that it’s easy to forget their origins. No wonder, considering that 1984 is supposedly the book that most people lie about having read. Some people might feel that going to see the new theatre adaption by Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company would be a suitable alternative, but a word of warning: read the book beforehand.

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s ingenious production makes a superb attempt at converting this complex book – with its plethora of political theories – into a decipherable stage production. However, there are some areas, such as the concepts of Newspeak and doublethink, which just can’t be portrayed effectively through the stage medium. What’s more, the deliberately disorientating effect of the play might leave those untrained in the ways of Oceania a bit baffled.

For the uninitiated, 1984 follows the life of comrade Winston as he attempts to rebel against the totalitarian society of Oceania, ruled by the Ingsoc party, alongside his secret lover Julia. Through the means of his diary and his internal thoughts he attempts to break away from the brainwashing indoctrination of the party and preserve his own individual mind and memory. The book has a strong political agenda as relates to government control and individual liberty which is still highly relevant today, but this up to date production adds contemporary concepts that speak an ominous warning; this will stay with you long after the show is over.

A framing narrative set in a futuristic book club was an interesting, if at times perplexing, addition to the story. What was most imaginative about the production though was Headlong’s innovative use of multimedia throughout. A large screen at the back of the set allowed the audience to see what was happening in unseen rooms off-stage, a clever allusion to the omnipresence of the telescreens throughout the novel. The use of lighting and music created some electrifying moments that sent shivers down my spine. Mark Arends played the part of the traumatised and distressed party member Winston with outstanding authenticity, especially during the most violent and dramatic scenes, in which his performance was emotionally moving but not overly dramatic. It must be said that all the cast were commendable, performing this dysfunctional and intricate play with flawless professionalism.

This thrilling production of 1984 will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout and will leave a long lasting impression about the nature of reality and the society we live in. But for a full understanding of the play – make sure you do your homework.

Jessica Murray

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