Nottingham Playhouse’s innovative production of 1984, adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, returns to London’s Playhouse Theatre following a successful year. George Orwell’s dystopian novel was published in 1949 and still feels highly relevant to the present day with Edward Snowden’s revelations, of NSA and GCHQ surveillance activities, and the Communications Data Bill which could potentially pass under the current UK government.
This adaptation of 1984 is a compelling yet uncomfortably bumpy ride through the oppressive Oceania. Scenes end with blackouts and sounds of mechanical screeching and electrical sparks. Matthew Spencer plays everyman protagonist Winston with a sensitivity that draws you in - every touch of hope or paranoia expressed brings out empathy yet also makes you question what is reality and imagination in Winston’s world. Everyday scenes are repeated such as the same interactions with the same colleagues in the same work canteen. The monotony of life in Oceania is emphasised and goes hand in hand with Winston’s sense of deja vu.
Janine Harouni’s Julia is a perfect match for Spencer’s Winston. The tension, before their first secret encounter and plans to rebel against the all powerful Party, is wrought with intense curiosity and inevitable uncertainty in a society where anybody could be a spy. The passion pours out when Julia and Winston are finally alone together for the first time - it is a frenzied and joyous scene that breaks out in contrast to the dark everyday depicted.
Chloe Lamford’s set design and costumes evoke a somewhat gloomy ration era mid 20th century feel and combines them with contemporary technology. An overhead widescreen projector looms over the back of the stage - through it we see the daily messages fed to citizens such as the words THOUGHT CRIMINAL in bold or a broadcast for ‘Two Minutes Hate’ portraying a supposed traitor to the Party while viewers are encouraged to express their hatred. It’s also through the projector that we watch the scenes between Winston and Julia in their rented bedroom where they believe they can’t be seen - the audience sees the world through Winston’s eyes but it also unwittingly plays Big Brother.
When Winston is taken to the dreaded Room 101, the brown and bottle green furnishings have been abruptly dismantled and cleared. Room 101 is a clinically harsh white space where Tim Dutton’s O’Brien interrogates and orders the torture of Winston with a skin crawling paternal authority. The stage blacks out just before any torture can be witnessed so all that can be heard are screams and drills. The lights return to reveal the gory physical results of the procedures before interrogation is continued. Like the best of horror films, it’s what you envision rather than actually see that terrifies.
This production of 1984 is powerful and refuses to let audiences sit comfortably. It’s compellingly frightening, thought provoking and will leave a lasting impression on both Orwell readers and the uninitiated. It may take a day or two before you casually enter personal details online again.
1984 is at the Playhouse Theatre until 5th September - www.playhousetheatrelondon.com/1984-play