'1984' review or 'Whose reality is this anyway?'
1984, George Orwell (adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan)
Almeida Theatre, 17th February 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo
Winston is trapped. He is trapped in a world controlled by Big Brother. He is trapped by own fears. He is trapped on stage and he’s even trapped by George Orwell. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s viciously intelligent adaptation of 1984 takes Orwells’ original novel and squeezes and twists his ideas until they nearly snap. It makes for a fierce and bracing piece of theatre.
This Headlong adaptation is the second production in Rupert Goold’s inaugural Almeida Theatre season and has all the fiery restlessness that is Goold’s trademark. The show is perpetually in motion. We jump from a class discussing Orwell’s novel (written in 1949) into the ‘reality’ of Winston’s life, back into the past and bang into the future. Reality is never allowed to settle.
Chloe Lamford’s brilliant set keeps the audience guessing and the show humming with ideas. A large screen hovers above an open stage, which has no ceiling to contain the action. Projected images flash up constantly; we see excerpts from the novel, snatches of surveillance recordings, secret locations and subliminal messages. The stage sparks and fuses, one reality vanishing and another appearing miraculously in its place. Everything is uncertain and Orwell’s ideas boom loudly: ‘Reality exists in the mind.’
Whilst the show’s concept is razor sharp, the characters feel a tad muted. To put it in Orwell’s words, the people feel ‘unpersoned’. When the relationship between Winston (Mark Arends) and Julia (Hara Yannas) takes centre stage, the intensity drops. Pitched against such a forceful and idea-driven show, this shaky relationship feels a little dull.
As soon as Big Brother returns to the foreground, the ideas start whirring and the show clicks back into place. The final act, in which Winston is tortured, is brutal. All the movement and colour of the first half is stripped away and the stage is reduced to a clean white box, filled with Winston’s terror. Arends excels in this scene, brave as he is vulnerable, and Tim Dutton chills the bones as Winston’s torturer. Half the audience spends the final act with their face hidden behind their hands.
The contemporary parallels grow stronger as the show judders to its ominous conclusion. There is the occasional glitch in the production; an actor repeats his lines or the lights flash out of cue. We get the uneasy feeling that some present power is still pulling the strings. This suspicion intensifies when Winston is warned: ‘The people will not look up from their screens long enough to know what is really happening.’ Is that ‘them’ he’s talking about, or us?