The critically acclaimed adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 returns to the Playhouse theatre after its runaway success in the West End and the Almeida Theatre last year. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation is haunting and clever, it is told in two parallel stories, one in the past the other in the future. It moves between the discussions of a book group set in the future (around 2015) and the life of Comrade 6079, Winston Smith, a citizen of Oceania, a superstate in a world of perpetual war, in 1984.
The group discuss Winston Smith’s diary – its authenticity, its reliability; is the narrator real, is the account trustworthy, is it factual, is there evidence to support his claims. At the same time we see Winston Smith’s story begin, his decision to keep a diary and his acknowledgement of his acts as a “thought criminal”. Smith is an editor at the Ministry of Truth where he revises news, rewrites articles and amends photography to support the Party’s ever changing official version of the past. Smith (Mark Arends) is a diligent worker who secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion. Arends is unsettling as the down trodden nervy worker who begins an illicit love affair with Julia (Hara Yannas), a co-worker at the Ministry, in a personal act of defiance against system. They meet regularly in secret in a hidden room decorated with illegal old world memorabilia and we watch them, via surveillance cameras, on huge screens in true Big Brother fashion. Tim Dutton plays the smooth, persuasive grey-suited Inner Party Member, O’Brien, who wins Winston’s trust by presenting himself as an agent of a counter-revolutionary organisation, the brotherhood, with devastating consequences.
Modern technology is used to great effect to set up a sinister world of surveillance, constant monitoring, recording and totalitarian control. The sense of tension and unease on stage quickly spreads to the audience and there is an uncomfortable déjà vu as we remember the recent revelations about government surveillance, accusations of spying, the collection of personal data and the presentation of selected facts that distract us from “inconvenient truths”.
The concept of Newspeak is given an important role in this new adaptation; it is the framework on which the Party’s sinister presence, omnipresent power and manipulative influence are adeptly conveyed. In the novel “The Principles of Newspeak” is an academic essay appended to the end that describes the development of Newspeak, the Party’s artificial language that is designed to align thought and action with the principles society by making “all other modes of thought impossible”.
The play is thought provoking and profoundly unnerving and instead of feeling reassured that the Orwellian vision is dead we are reminded of the fragility of freedom, truth and free will and the need to be ever vigilant against its corrosion.
2015 Running dates: 12th June – 05th September 2015
1984 was on at The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End from 28th April until 19th July 2014, after its sell out run at the Almedia Theatre in London.
Footnotes and Image credits: The play was nominated for a 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Play and had two sell-out runs at the Almeida. Images are taken from the web.