The Playhouse's production of Orwell's classic is chillingly immersive
From the beginning, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s angry production of 1984 sets out to confound and meddle. Refusing to offer a straight narrative or fixed scene, it allows us to inhabit the mind of Winston Smith as he attempts to make sense of reality under the pitiless eye of Big Brother.
It does this by honing in on Newspeak, the appendix Orwell added to the main text to explain the sterilised language that the Party is trying to impose. Newspeak is written in the past tense, perhaps to imply that the Party has at last fallen – ‘Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism’.
The play shifts between two settings, one the familiar dystopia of Orwell’s novel, the other an unspecified ‘future’ in which a book group discusses the implications of a text. ‘It changes the way you think’ – they say; but are they speaking about Winston’s diary, the revolutionary book he reads, written by the heretic Emmanuel Goldstein – or 1984 itself?
This manages to be less self-consciously meta than it sounds, and effectively recreates the slipperiness of Winston’s world. The creators make great use of memory and its failures – we are frequently plunged into ringing, metallic darkness and when the light returns scenes are repeated, but with small details missing. Didn’t the servant hold a broom last time? Or not? There are holes in everything, which the Party is only too ready to plug with its own version of the story.
Matthew Spencer as Winston is perfect – stooped and balding, wincing at the slow rot of language and his every movement truncated by fear. When he is in the interrogation room spitting out his teeth his whole being seems to drip from his face. Many of the scenes with his lover Julia take place offstage in the dull light of an overhead screen. In the secret bedroom loaned to them by Mr Charrington, sickly antique portraits cover the walls but Winston’s wet eyes are almost all we see.
Winston’s job in the records department takes on a new significance in the digital age. He rewrites records, changes names, erases whole lives with a click; yet at the same time is afraid to write a word in his diary because that will commit it to real life. Here is our paradox too: ‘unfriend’, ‘unfollow’ are part of common parlance, and we have shorter attention spans than ever. At the same time, the permanence and searchability of a culture whose every minor event is committed to code means it will be much harder for posterity to rewrite history.
I found this to be the most striking significance of the play. Other attempts to ham up its relevance were less successful, such as when the word AUSTERITY appears in huge letters on the overhead screen. It feels a little teenage-angsty to compare Oceania to Tory Britain – then again, maybe that’s the point. The book group framing the play are so blusteringly hyperbolic about the text and how meaningful it is that it looks like a comment on our own paranoia, the fear of surveillance and government malevolence to which we have become accustomed.
The scenes in the workplace canteen are especially good, led by the excellent Simon Coates as Parsons. Parsons symbolises everything that repulses Winston about Oceania; bobbing with self righteousness, he draws out his every word for the benefit of the party. Parsons’ pride is his brainwashed seven-year-old who eventually shops him to the authorities when she hears him shouting ‘DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER’ in his sleep. This got a few laughs, though Parsons is really too sadly repellent to be a comic figure.
Atmosphere is where this production really shines. The dark figure of O’Brien, Winston’s saviour and betrayer, looms prescient throughout, and the action is shot through with piercing sounds and electric shocks. The violent deaths of defectors are cinematic in their urgency, showcasing the anger of the creators to full effect. It builds a trembling, nauseous mood and the scene where Winston and Julia are caught in their hideout is unbearably jarring.
However, Julia and Winston’s relationship seems superficial. Leading to the crucial betrayal that proves Big Brother’s triumph, their love needs to be believable. Instead we leap quickly from Winston’s mistrust of Julia – his wanting, as he says, to ‘stab her in the throat’ – to stagey sex and then a few scenes where Julia irritates Winston by trying to persuade him that their relationship is more significant than their situation. Yes, Julia is designed to be a sensuous contrast to Winston, but I could not believe that it broke Winston’s heart to betray her.
It is testament to the cleverness of this production that we don’t see its central question – did the Party really fall, or do they just want us to believe so? – until the end. Here, Newspeak takes on central importance, and we start to trip on our own assumptions. I cannot remember the last thing I saw that was so immersive, or so bleakly resounding.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. 1984 is at the Playhouse Theatre until 5 September.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.