Adapting George Orwell’s dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four is no small feat, but one which Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan master within 101 fraught, uninterrupted minutes. The collaborative effort of the Almeida Theatre with Nottingham Playhouse and Headlong delivers an alarmingly convincing resurrection of Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare and conjures a new creation that interrogates the purpose and even the significance of the original text.
Icke and Macmillan include their own creative twist; the play opens with the 1948 diary of Winston Smith being scrutinised by a 2050 reading group. This futuristic collective question the reliability of Winston’s words, throwing his very motives for writing under suspicion. The purpose of the group’s tide of questions seems to be to press us to consider the greater issue of the power of a single text. Quite a profound consideration, and a difficult one to execute within the opening minutes of the play.
Innovative ideas aside, the set, actors and stage work ingeniously together to sustain a suffocating atmosphere of regimental regulation. Natasha Chivers, Tom Gibbons and Time Reid (light, sound and video respectively) work together to terrorise the senses, creating an onslaught of doctrine that intermittently invades Winston’s uncomfortably rigid workplace. Reid’s video design gives you the impression that Sam Crane’s tortured Winston is doomed from the onset; the clever inclusion of a screen proves to be the unsettling tool through which we see Winston’s private writings of rebellion, with repeated lines of ‘Down with Big Brother’ angrily scrawled across his diary’s pages.
Disturbingly, it is the very footage we watch throughout the play that turns out to be part of the Party’s surveillance system and ultimately exposes Julia and Winston’s haven. The refuge of their room is only ever glimpsed through the screen until a sudden and brutal dismantling of the set by militants reveal the room to be a form of artificial set, put in place by the Thought-Police. Any false sense of security that is painstakingly formed is swiftly destroyed.
A haunting line is repeated throughout the play: ‘Where do you think you are, Winston?’ It is this perception of reality which later becomes shattered and tested. Layer after layer, the set is torn down, swiftly replaced by a glaring torture cell. Not a single harrowing detail is forgiven in the following. Not for the squeamish, I might add. In a disturbing moment Winston calls out to the rapt and horrified audience ‘Somebody do something! I can see you all watching’ – a cry which left me feeling long after the play had ended that I was somehow complicit.
Gripping throughout, and hugely provocative in its questioning of writing, power and control, the play masterfully escapes the simplification of being a dramatization, and boldly steps into a league of its own.
1984 runs at the Playhouse Theatre in London until 23 August