“1984” by George Orwell

a new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 15th October 2013

After the house lights flare up (“It was a bright cold day in April…”) and gongs chime through the auditorium (“…and the clocks were striking thirteen”), Headlong’s production of 1984 starts with a provocation. Sat at a desk, a dishevelled figure (who will turn out to be Winston Smith) writes onto a page, which is then projected onto a screen. He scribbles the date (15th October), crosses it out, then writes a year followed by a question mark: 1984? This simple punctuation mark then throws the whole of Orwell’s novel into flux, forcing us to question its validity and its accuracy whilst cheekily willing us to argue this isn’t Orwell’s work.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is, fairly unoriginally, one of my all-time favourite books, with my well-thumbed copy being returned to roughly once a year. Extraordinarily, however, it’s never dawned on me that by penning the Appendix Orwell actually wrote in the potential for future adaptations of his work, as he places the whole novel in relief by creating some kind of future tense. Even more extraordinarily, this isn’t something which (according the Orwell estate) any adaptation has capitalised on in the past; the ‘adapters and creators’ of this version, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, are apparently the first to do so. To this end, 1984 starts and ends with a seminar-style discussion, which performs the same function as Orwell’s Appendix and sets up questions to ask – what does Winston’s story tell us about truth? About power? About humanity? And so on.

The first two thirds of Orwell’s narrative – the Two Minutes’ Hate, Winston’s affair with Julia, the meeting with O’Brien – happen within the confines of the stuffy academic environment, with boxes of files stacked on either side, a panelled ceiling acting as a screen and a corridor upstage. Here, the imagined past occurs within the confines of the physical present, with ghosts from both haunting one another. The only escape for Marks Arends’ and Hara Yannas’ naive-but-passionate Winston and Julia comes in the form of their room deep in the heart of the Proles’ community, a haven but for the fact we spy on them covertly via video relay. In fact, this first section of the production is reminiscent of Gatz, couched in narrative and metaphor, with contributors to the earlier seminar taking on different roles within Winston’s mind.

[To pull apart the last section of this 1984, a bit of a spoiler is necessary, so don’t read the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the show yet or don’t intend to.]

Then, as Julia and Winston get discovered in their safe place – the morning after he has fallen asleep muttering the mantra “Sanity is not statistical” – Chloe Lamford’s design performs a stunning coup, being completely deconstructed – by figures in masks resembling deformed Guy Fawkes visages – to leave nothing but a white floor and polythene drapes, like a negative of Hyemi Shin’s Secret Theatre Show One design. The lovers’ room is discovered to exist as a tiny, ramshackle wooden box behind the set itself, a construct able to be instantly dismantled. In this moment, the whole ‘reality’ we’ve experienced up to this point is destroyed, revealing it all to be false and created to deceive us. This is the dreaded Room 101, and everything up until this instant has been in the shadow of its walls; Winston’s reality, in other words, is simultaneously his worst nightmare.

What’s interesting about these two halves is that they represent different ways of presenting the world. The first section is almost cinematic in scope, with events taking place in widescreen and quick cuts resembling film footage. The sleight of hand on show – did we just see that figure at the back or was it our imagination? – coupled with Tom Gibbins suspense-laden, omnipresent sound design, portrays an idea of 1984-as-thriller. Conversely, the scenes within the Ministry of Love are unashamedly theatrical, complete with loud music, bright lights (Natasha Chivers), direct address and stage blood. The purpose of this shift isn’t purely practical, helping move on the narrative and placing each section it opposition; it also introduces questions of reality, truth and subjectivity into the mix. By placing this world in flux, O’Brien’s line “This is the future, Winston, right now” (delivered with calm menace by Tim Dutton) manages to be both brutally clear and woefully complex.

Through all this, Icke and Macmillan manage to demonstrate that theatre itself performs a kind of doublethink. If doublethink itself can be typified by seeing the words “On time” on a train station information board and believing it even though your watch proves it wrong, then theatre is couched in the stuff. A room is placed on stage but instead we see a forest. A man spits out red liquid and we believe he’s had his teeth pulled out. We are told this is 1984 but know it feels like 2013. Like the population of Airstrip One, theatre audiences are able to hold two truths within their heads simultaneously without allowing them to contradict one another. If theatre is the world in microcosm, then all around us doublethink exists: capitalism ruins lives but we continue thinking it’s the best system; protest seems legitimate but is in fact contained within the structures of modern society; and love should be able to conquer all but it rarely does.

With an absence of the the clichéd tropes of cameras and screens, this production becomes less a contemplation of surveillance in the modern world (though that’s all there), and instead interrogates ideas of authorship and truth. By the time the final scene comes around (which, incidentally, manages to look exactly as I always envisioned it), and the seminar group returns, all of the contradictions Orwell touches on are blown open, as the very validity of this story is interrogated. We become complicit in events – “They will not look up from their screens long enough to see what’s really going on” – and must ask ourselves if this is ‘us’. Did the Party just create this story to assist their perpetual existence? Is there (or was there) ever really a way out of the system of IngSoc (also read: late capitalism), or does any protest merely become subsumed by its structure? And, perhaps most importantly, “Did any of this really happen?”


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