Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 16th October, 2013
Any mention of this book gives rise to comments about what a visionary Orwell was and every generation is able to find parallels in its own society, saying dear old George predicted this or warned against that. And it’s true: our surveillance society (there are more CCTV cameras in England than anywhere else), proposals to monitor the internet and police access to certain types of site, how freely we surrender personal information to websites and supermarket loyalty schemes… The thought police are in the shadows, wearing the outrage of the politically correct brigade and we are invited to police each other through schemes like CrimeStoppers and Shop-a-Scrounger. There is manipulation of the masses through propaganda and lies perpetrated by the media… Orwell is not far off the mark and his 1984-world is not far away.
What Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation does is give the story an additional spin. It begins with protagonist Winston Smith daring to write in his diary, but he is like a ghost, a spectre present at a kind of book club at which a group of people intellectualise about the nature and meaning of the book itself. To them, (as to us) the book is a thing of the past. It’s a framing device that is a little disconcerting to begin with but eventually the story proper gets under way and the Orwellian world is revealed to us gradually.
Mark Arends is appealing and vulnerable as Winston, the everyman of the piece, awakening to the truth – or the truth as it is presented to him in order to trap him… His mindfuck is our mindfuck. He meets Julia (a striking Hara Yannas) for a bit of sex and chocolate in a love nest around the back of an antiques shop. Some scenes happen off-stage and we witness them on a large video screen that forms the backdrop of the set, casting us in the role of Big Brother, watching these private moments. Later, during Winston’s torture, he cries out to us, begging us not to sit there and let this happen. It’s a startling moment of breaking the fourth wall, as if we weren’t uncomfortable enough by this point.
At the end we return to the framing device – people in the future discussing the book. Orwell’s society has come and gone, they seem to think. Or has it? Does The Party now operate in more subtle ways? One leaves the theatre tending to agree…
Headlong Theatre’s startling production is intriguing from the start and downright gripping by the finish. Chloe Lamford’s set design explodes from institutional wood panelling to the stark and featureless nowhere of Room 101, aided considerably by Natasha Chivers’s lighting. The piece is not just a symposium – it’s a highly theatrical experience, a powerful and inventive presentation of a well-known story.
One line lingers with me in particular and it’s not “Big Brother is watching” or “What’s in Room 101?” as hijacked by popular culture; it’s “We didn’t ought to have trusted them” and it haunts me as the media remain silent about NHS privatisation and promulagate lies about the welfare system, and all the other cruelties inflicted on people by governments the whole world over. “People are not going to revolt,” says the torturer-in-chief smugly, “They’re not going to look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s going on.”