Review of “1984” by George Orwell; a new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. (Almeida, Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse)
Right from the start, this adaptation of Orwell’s classic is an assault on the senses – strobe lighting, mechanical rumblings and static interference all compete with one another to distort whatever fidelity the reconstructed narrative may have to the ‘real’ events of Winston’s life. Framed initially by a reading group’s discussion of Winston’s diary in a post-Ingsoc society (to say “post-totalitarian” would be questionable given the apparent survival of the ubiquitous telescreen) we are immediately plunged at breakneck speed into the timeline which begins with the germination of Winston’s dissent. A clever device which could otherwise have been trite and stale is in fact invigorating, as it allows a kaleidoscopic outward projection of Winston’s damaged mind to act not only as the familiar protagonist, but also as a surrogate for the audience.
The production is cleverly staged and sequenced, with much made of a very constrained set. The inevitability of Winston’s fate manifests itself increasingly with the passing of time through the unravelling of reality within the play’s little universe: characters appear unbidden in temporally or logically impossible situations; sequences of events in repetitious reworkings of a single scene continue to play out even in the conspicuous absence of essential actors, most shockingly in the case of Syme who is cleverly unpersoned not only from the self-censoring minds of his fellow characters, but also from the audience’s expectation of his presence. It is hard to escape the impression that this decomposition of ordered reality is a by-product of the torture machine to which Winston is wired near the narrative’s conclusion, which shatters his sanity and causes his neural connections to misfire haphazardly. He becomes not so much an unreliable narrator as a destroyed one. And after all why should this not be the case right from the start? As O’Brien chidingly asserts, Winston has always known what awaits him in Room 101.
The performances given are heartfelt and all the more affecting for their sometimes surprising physicality. Power – or rather powerlessness – is expressed by futile attempts to break or rail against the fourth wall. Characters plead, question aloud, or even scream viciously (the two-minute hate is cleverly directed towards the audience) and yet not a single voice from outside is expected to stir. Total inability to change one’s circumstances is the overwhelming theme here and is compounded with a rather cynical undertone by the fact that acts of symbolic destruction against the set are ultimately shown to be purely superficial. This strikes a blow at one’s gut and any hopes one might have for an affirmation of the power of love, when the most striking destruction of scenery takes place in the course of Julia and Winston’s first romantic liaison. Once again later on, a feeling of impotence manifests itself with the unpleasantly voyeuristic way the audience are obliged to observe Winston and Julia’s more private moments via ‘hidden’ cameras tucked away in their bedroom.
Overall I feel that the measure of this adaptation’s success (as someone who has read the book many times) is in that I will now feel the echo of its sensory bombardment whenever I read the book for some time to come. There is no feeling of cheap imitation or superfluous contextualisation with allegories of latter-day assaults on our civil liberties. What is presented is a faithful presentation of the original story – the struggle of one man against a monstrous dictatorship – with enough creative verve and style to keep any audience gripped from beginning to end.