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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Playhouse


  Ph: Manuel Harlan

Last dramatised as a film 30 years ago (its title year), George Orwell’s grimly visionary dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four gets a shockingly effective interpretation in an exciting Almeida, Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse co-production triumphantly transferred into the West End. There’s nothing dated about this ingenious new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. Using multimedia and a fiendishly clever framing device, it brings home powerfully our ongoing engagement and concern with issues like surveillance, privacy, identity and personal freedom. If anything, the work is ever scarier for our escalating collective awareness that Big Brother, Doublethink, Newspeak, Thought Police and the deleting of an unperson have taken real form, in politics, society and reality television.
Suitably insignificant looking Everyman Winston Smith (Mark Arends, every nerve-ending in his slight frame seeming a-tingle with anxiety) sits beneath one of the ubiquitous telescreens and begins to write down his thoughts. This secret self-expression is an act of defiance that – as a narrator’s voice announces – seals Winston’s fate. Big Brother is watching. Suddenly Winston’s dingy lodging becomes a meeting room where a group discusses Orwell’s book and its ideas with an enthusiastic, professorial leader (Tim Dutton, doubling with unnerving benevolent manner as Winston’s interrogator/tormentor O’Brien). Characters and settings move back and forth in time, the Winston figure confused which is his reality, which the present, past or future. Scenes even repeat, like a nightmarish Groundhog Day, as perceptions shift and conversations have alternative import. 
At heart the love story is still painfully compelling between Winston and Julia, his fellow thought criminal. Hara Yannas’ Julia strikingly suggests the fanaticism and despair from which love and sexuality are acts of loathing for the ruthless, elite ruling Party. Their illicit love affair is conducted in a backroom of an antiques shop, safe in the absence of a telescreen. Or so they think. The lovers meet off stage but we see them on a screen, video monitoring turning us into the always-watching Big Brother. It’s a neat trick that despite our voyeuristic complicity, when the lovers recite their mantra “We are the dead” and a booming voice confirms “You are the dead!” our shock at their discovery and ruin is overwhelming. A stunning scene shift becomes a pristine, blindingly white Room 101 where horrific torture, confession and betrayal swiftly ensue, Winston’s ordeal so harrowing as to provoke groans and flinching throughout the house.

The most inspired stroke is the interweaving – terrifically, nimbly realized by cast, design, lighting, sound and video – of the core narrative with the study group scrutinising Winston’s diary and Orwell’s appendix to the novel “The Principles of Newspeak”, treating them as authentic records. Are they a book club? Are they Party censors deleting the subversive? Are they historians analysing the fall of the Party? Is Winston’s existence real or imaginary to them? Whatever one decides, one concurs with their jolting conclusion that “It’s a vision of the future, no matter when it’s being read.”


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