George Orwell’s 1984 is referenced so often that its impact and immediacy has been eroded. Concepts like Room 101, The Daily Hate and, of course, Big Brother are co-opted by any-and-everyone, used as a tired shorthand way of disagreeing with whatever happens to be the issue du jour. This presents an problem for those attempting to adapt it: how do you make it feel fresh?
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s solution for this Almeida Theatre production is to recreate protagonist Winston Smith’s paranoia, his creeping feelings of insecurity and isolation, and to put the audience in his place, rather than to simply retell his story. It opens with Winston sitting around a table with an group of unfamiliar people who seem to talk through him. He may be there with them, or it might be a memory. Or it might be something altogether more sinister.
The production capitalises on the fact that most of the audience will already be aware of the novel’s key concepts, and there’s a nagging doubt running through the first act that Winston may already be trapped in the infamous Room 101 (a torture chamber where a person’s worst fears are realised), being forced to relive his thought crimes. Time is fractured and Winston seems to drift in and out of consciousness, dragging the audience with him. As the play gathers pace, scenes begin repeat themselves, with ever-wider cracks appearing in both the narrative and the set itself. Lights cut out, actors freeze, disappear and swap places, piercing bursts of feedback inflict genuine pain on your ears. One particularly clever conceit sees parts of the action filmed live from off-stage and beamed from a projector, putting the audience in the place of the novel’s voyeurs screaming at the Daily Hate. And Big Brother is always watching – peering from behind the set or flashing up on a giant screen.
There are some sensational set-pieces, too, particularly during one of the big reveals, which is impeccably, extravagantly staged – I won’t give any more away. The drawn-out scenes of torture towards the play’s conclusion border on the gratuitous but elicit an outstanding performance from Mark Arends, whose Winston is almost unrecognisable from the meek Ministry of Truth wonk we first encounter. It’s brash, bravado theatre, and it certainly never feels old.
First published in City A.M.