Review: 1984

An inventive retelling of George Orwell’s dystopia makes for uncomfortable viewing, says Antonia Charlesworth

Hero image

There is a reasonable expectation that audiences will find relevance in Orwell’s nightmare vision of state repression and surveillance today. The revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden last year confirmed that Big Brother is indeed watching us. And as he predicted, we have been passively acquiescing – “They will not look up from their screens long enough to see what’s really going on.”

To their credit co-creators Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke don’t overstate this obvious conclusion in their brilliant stage adaptation of the 1949 novel. The message is implicit. Instead they ask us to consider a relatively unexplored aspect of the text.

In the early scenes we are introduced to what appears to be a book club setting in which members are discussing the text. It seems like a cheap device but protagonist Winston Smith’s presence in this alludes to the fact that this third party already exists within the novel – as the narrator who has footnoted and written an appendix in Smith’s story. The act of reading the account is present before you’ve read the first page and Macmillan and Icke place this overlooked fact in centre stage. This raises the question, in a theatrical equivalent of doublethink, of whether the narrator is reliable

Audience members are unsure if they are witnessing the past, a vision of the future or events unfolding right now. Set and costume don’t clarify this – Chloe Lamford’s timeless design is at once futuristic and retro. Lighting and sound from Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons only add to the disorientation and viewers get a palpable sense of Smith’s state of mind as he battles to hold on to the truth in a world that is erasing it.

Matthew Spencer does a brilliant job of conveying that. Following the intense final scenes in the dreaded Room 101, which are further intensified by the lack of interval and the audience not being allowed to leave their seats (no, not even to nip to the loo), he breathed an unapologetic sigh of relief. He was glad it was over. We all were.

There are lighter moments too, relatively at least. Smith’s first encounter with love interest Julia (Janine Harouni) at the railway station is a rousing scene of rebellion; and comedy, albeit black, is present too, notably in Parsons’ character (George Potts). It’s a small acknowledgment of the text as satire in a play that seems better placed as a thriller – a deeply unsettling one at that.

Headlong’s adaptation of 1984 by George Orwell is at the Grand Theatre Blackpool until 4 Oct.

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Review: 1984

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.