The master-stroke of this prescient, incendiary adaptation of George Orwell’s novel 1984 is to set it inside the mind of Winston Smith. We walk with him down corridors of paranoia and through collapsing memory cells as his attempt to stand up against the totalitarian forces of the Party and Big Brother are challenged from both within and without.
It is a brilliant treatment of a book that, for all its heaving horror, has come to seem somehow over-familiar: a predictable and almost cosy set-text. The show’s creators, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, have blown away the cobwebs with their complex and harrowing re-imagining of the story’s essential elements. They chew on the themes of control, surveillance and the loss of solidarity with as much relish as the rats in the Ministry of Love chew on the faces of the political prisoners held there.
But we’ll get to Room 101 in due course; the first half of the play is set in the glum provincial bureau where Winston Smith works. All teaspoons and Victory gin, none of these quaint 1940s features can disguise the fact that Smith is living his own Myth of Sisyphus. As he realises this and his thoughts turn to rebellion, all the routine aspects of life around him unravel and, in a beautifully choreographed set of scenes, his co-workers begin to slip out of sequence with each other.
Smith (Sam Crane) is spurred on by Julia (Hara Yannas) for whom sex is a political act of disobedience. Love though is more dangerous still and it’s their affair – cleverly relayed to the audience via video feed – that brings them into the orbit of the Thought Police.
Much of the first half is like peeking through a crack in the door at a collective trauma everyone is trying to ignore – it is quiet and subtle and also a trick. When the Party strikes, all the low-key retro styling is stripped away and the audience is taught the true meaning of "the place where there is no darkness". It is a compressed nightmare, like a scream inside a sea-shell, all the more harrowing for its visual echoes of contemporary theatres of political abuse. This production puts us squarely inside Room 101 with Winston. The question then becomes: what do we do about it?
Sam Crane delivers a sophisticated and sinuous performance, disappearing in front of our eyes as he is ‘unwritten’ by the powers that be. Hara Yannas provides heart and fury, while Tim Dutton takes over proceedings, commanding and merciless as the double-crossing O’Brien. The ensemble cast is terrific, working together like clockwork in a complex dance that is full of sly magic tricks. This is a superlative production that once again confirms Headlong to be one of the finest touring companies in the country.
1984 is on at the Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue WC2, until 19 July 2014. Tickets £10-£52.50 plus booking fee. Londonist saw the play on a complimentary ticket.