This play presents perhaps the most confusing, uncomfortable and engaging viewing I have ever encountered. Headlong present a new adaption by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan of George Orwell’s novel of the same name, which provides a reinterpretation of the definitive book of the 20th century and brings forth huge questions on identity and power within society. So much so that after viewing you are likely to leave with a headache and a feeling of discomfort; you’re suddenly aware of certain structures around you and the true power ‘government’ can hold.
For those who haven’t encountered George Orwell’s amazing novel: 1984 sets out a future dystopia, riddled by war, set in the superstate Oceania, which is under constant surveillance and control of the Inner Party and Big Brother. All forms of individualism or free thinking are categorised as ‘thought crimes’ and those who commit this crime can be persecuted with a number of torture methods or even death. All love is reserved for the party: everything must be to the benefit of the party, providing it with absolute power and control over the population.
The play starts out throwing doubt around the memories of our protagonist, Comrade 6079 Winston Smith (Matthew Spencer) with him seemingly reliving each day the same and participating and remaining aloof from comments. Key phrases of speech are repeated, building towards a heavy sense of deja vu. The key point throughout these early scenes seem to be the entrance of Comrade Julia (played by the excellent Janine Harouni) with white noise playing out to further assault the senses and emphasise this as well as the constant reference back to Winston’s ‘diary’.
With Julia’s entrance into this dystopian future, Winston seems to gain a slow clarity and as their love progresses hidden away from ‘Big Brother’, so does his own sense of time. However, as Winston encounters those he thinks are members of the Brotherhood – a secret rebellion against the Party – it seems things again begin to unravel. Suddenly the crafted world Winston thinks he belongs to is ripped apart and Winston and Julia are discovered for their illicit affair and sent to the Ministry of Love for interrogation.
This is where the brilliance of 1984 is truly discovered. The set is broken apart in front of the audience, transforming into a stark white room with nothing but an interrogation chair in the middle, and grey seats at the side. Suddenly all those repeated phrases become familiar: they’re all recited in Room 101. Winston’s memories have been distorted along the path; Big Brother has been playing with him.
Spencer truly shows his repertoire in this scene, portraying every element of the fallen hero and the narcissistic comrade that he is. Here Big Brother displays its true purpose: the gathering and control of absolute power. Their sole purpose is power and so they go about exerting it on our protagonist. This scene is powerful with excellent effects and true fear predominant throughout. The audience is even involved at one point.
As the play winds up, it seems we set foot into a distant future from 1984 and the Party is dead. Or is it? It seems Winston’s diary has now become another tool of control, perhaps letting the population feel safe from their true reality. But of course we’re unsure. 1984 leaves with a flourish of confusion and again pulls down the veil on its audience as it should. Suddenly discussion of what is freedom ensues and everyone debates on the ending. But that is the whole point – and with a mixture of superb acting particularly from our two leads as well as Tim Dutton as O’Brien and Andre Flynn as Martin (who never says a great deal but whose countenance speaks for itself), elaborate sets and effects and of course total control over its audience’s senses, 1984 not only adapts George Orwell’s novel but embodies it in every aspect.
This play is important for any member of society who claims to have intelligence to see. A truly superb adaption of George Orwell’s novel that will make any person doubt their senses and intellect.