London in the sunshine is a glorious place to be, especially down by the river where, looking out across the water, surrounded by the buzz of beer-fuelled Londoners, the world looks pretty much perfect.
And what a better thing to do on an early summer evening when the world looks so lovely than to sit in the near darkness watching a dystopian tale so powerful that I felt like I’d spent the night on a rack in Room 101.
The world in this adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 may contrast sharply with London on a warm night, but in these days of Julian Assange and Ed Snowdon, government cover ups, politicians whipping up hate against minority groups and surveillance cameras on every corner, Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare novel, first published in 1949, seems more relevant than ever.
Orwell’s novel has been distilled down to its brutal bones for the stage by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. The production transferred to the Playhouse Theatre at the end of last month from the hit factory that is the Almeida. Watching this intense, claustrophobic play in the confined space of the N1 based theatre would been punishing. For once I was glad of my Upper Circle seat.
The conceit of this production is to use the appendix in the original novel as a springboard to bookend Winston’s tale with a narrative that’s set somewhere around 2050 where the book has become a historical text. The play opens with people in some kind of book club (book clubs, like cockroaches will probably survive an atomic attack) discussing this ‘diary’; Winston’s story, its providence, relevance, reliability and impact debated widely. Having those characters then playing characters in Winston’s story further rams home the mirror image that Orwell was holding up to us in his novel: there is no past or future.
This Almeida Theatre, Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse production makes full use of every theatrical component – the set and the staging are as vital as the tremendous acting in telling this story. For a large part of the one hour 41 minute play the set resembles a church hall or school library; officious but perfunctory, there is nothing futuristic about it. When Winston and Julia are in the hands of the Party, the set is stripped bare and bathed in white light. Throughout the play, the theatre is plunged into pitch darkness, rocked by booming noises and illuminated with strobes.
But it’s not all crash, bang, wallop, the acting is top notch too. Mark Arends is a wonderfully juddery Winston, wide eyed with fear. Hara Yannas gives a lovely controlled performance as Julia, a character who could to be seen as cold and robotic.
Nineteen Eighty Four is a book I know and love; I’ve read it several times, but it’s a story that still has the power to surprise and shock, especially when it’s adapted with such force as it is here. That final scene was proper hand-over-the-face stuff; I had controlled my mind in a way the Party would have been impressed with to forget just how nasty things get in Room 101 (clue: more fake blood).
This is a truly affecting – and entertaining – play; I don’t think I’ve ever been so rattled by a piece of theatre.
1984 is back at the London Playhouse until 29 October 2016.
Get 64% off ticket prices here.
This review is from the 2014 production at the Playhouse Theatre.
by Suzanne Elliott