A TERRIFYING, TRIUMPHANT HEADLONG TAKE ON ORWELL
I think George Orwell would be sourly pleased at the way Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan of Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse have treated his great cry of despair. They riff on it, and in its very structure ironize Newspeak and Doublethink until, pinned to the seat, we too enter the dark terror of Thoughtcrime. There are even spookily calm scenes fore and aft in which a reading group of 2084 analyzes the book and believes that everything is fine since The Party fell in 2050. Unless that too is a thought-control illusion. Orwell would appreciate that.
Unlike the film or Nick Lane’s strong, but more conventional, adaptation a few years ago, Icke and Macmillan create a jerky dislocated structure . From the start Mark Arends’ gaunt Winston Smith is losing his mind with the stress of being forbidden to believe his own senses. Familiar elements are there – telescreens, Julia (Hara Yannas, perfectly the rebel below the waist and pragmatist above) , Charrington’s junk shop room and snow-globe, Oranges and Lemons, children denouncing parents, Victory Gin, the apparent Goldstein conspiracy and Winston’s day job deleting ‘unpersons’. The Two Minutes’ Hate is staged with terrifying vigour, and there is a deeply affecting moment as Winston watches the maternal singing woman in the street and nurses the hope that salvation lies in the universal humanity of the proles.
So it’s all there: but as in a dream lines and scenes recur, projections confuse time and place, and crashes, flashes and blackouts force us to into Winston’s understanding that love and privacy are a chimera: “We are the dead”. Chloe Lamford’s design is surreally alarming in itself: the arrest and torture at the Ministry of Love sees the familiar stage grow huge, white,empty of all but power and pain. Even there the most frightening element is Tim Dutton’s O’Brien. Senatorial, civilized, confident, likeable, he is the ultimate headmasterly or clerical figurehead whose revealed allegiance is both shocking and credible. This is the eternal Inquisitor: “We do not tolerate rebellion, even in a brain awaiting a bullet. We make it perfect before we blow it out”.
Wisely, there is no updating (though the programme is stuffed with right-on contemporary soundbites) but plenty does resonate: as the readers say, every age finds itself in this book. The Snowden surveillance controversy is prefigured in the complacent, tubby loyalist Parsons saying he’s glad of the telescreens because “There are people out there who hate us and want to destroy our way of life. And if we’re being watched, so are they!” And terrorism of all ages echoes in O’Brien’s early demand that Winston Smith be prepared, in the Cause, to “commit murder, betray, kill, throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face…”
A stunning, terrifying hundred minutes. And a relief to step out into the street, with evening papers blowing untidily around and glimmering smartphone screens full of raucous contention, disrespect and unpunished satire. Thirty years on from 1984, we’re not there. Yet.