It’s been 65 years since it was written, yet George Orwell’s 1984 becomes chillingly more and more applicable, especially in this post-NSA-revelations world.
Written and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, this new adaptation, a co-production with Headlong and the Nottingham Playhouse, uses the appendix of the novel, the Principles of Newspeak – which sets the events of the book in the past – as a jumping-off point. It is some time in the late 21st century and a book group is analysing Winston’s diary 100 years on from its creation. As they discuss the text, the characters begin to enact the story, jumping in and out of multiple worlds, from the future to the past and back again: Winston is at once talking to those reading his diary and in his own world back in 1984 in a kind of double layer of reality that is a motif throughout. ‘How do we know anything in this world is real?’ the text asks again and again. ‘How do you know you’re not dreaming now?’
Sudden freeze frames, replayings of scenes, intermittent static and a continual high-pitched electronic hum reinforce the idea of this as a dubious reality – it’s as if we are viewing a recording. And the theme of surveillance pervades the production. Ingeniously, the room in the back of Mr Charrington’s shop – the one place Winston and Julia think they are safe from the all-seeing eye of Big Brother – is offstage, and everything that takes place there is projected on to a huge screen. It's a clever bit of stagecraft but some of the longer scenes that we watch in this way are a little stiff and, at times, begin to test our attention.
Icke and Macmillan remain immensely faithful to the book, and Winston and Julia’s love story is played out with a nice spark between actors Mark Arends and Hara Yannas. At just an hour and 40 minutes, it’s an unapologetically brutal night (a neighbour commented that she could see why there was no interval) but its inspired design, high production values and clever devices make this an impressive piece of theatre. Adapting this renowned novel for the stage was always going to be a tall order, but Icke and Macmillan have pulled it off with gusto.
1984 runs until 29 March 2014 at Almeida Theatre, Islington, London, N1 1TA. Go to www.almeida.co.uk or call 020 75359 4404. The run is sold out but a limited number of seats will be released at 11am from the box office for each day’s performance. Limit two per person. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary press ticket.