Almeida Theatre, London
As if timed to perfection, George Orwell’s profound warning against state control, 1984, has stolen back into our consciousness just when surveillance is reaching a peak. Thanks to Edward Snowden, the NSA, GCHQ, Google and Facebook, issues of personal privacy have become burning subjects of debate.
After a triumphant tour and its premiere last September, Nottingham Playhouse and Headlong’s production has now reached the Almeida. It’s a shattering experience.
The third co-production between Headlong and the Almeida (Chimerica and American Psycho being the previous two), Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s production speaks on so many levels it should tour forever and be seen the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland.
Part adaptation, part analytical reframing, Chloe Lamford’s design develops from the brown mundanity of a claustrophobic college study room to the bare grey-walled brutality of a torture chamber. In between Orwell’s hero, Winston Smith with his stolen love, Julia, are seen via video-cam in a chintzy paradise of a bedroom they think to be free from surveillance.
But nothing in Winston’s world is unmonitored. With extraordinary vision, Orwell foresaw the stranglehold modern technology would come to exert over human lives and its effect on our sense of identity, reality, history and language. Think text and twitter and you realise how prescient was his apprehension of loss of language.
Orwell’s Oceania has become our reality and like the 1998 American movie, Enemy of the State where an individual’s life is utterly destroyed by a malevolent, over-scrutinising NSA so Winston’s gallant act of rebellion against the `thought police’ is overseen at every point.
Orwell’s pessimism that equality and individual freedom were doomed is not much moderated in Icke and Macmillan’s production. In a crucifying climax of electrically charged torture and attempts to extinguish both the past and Winston’s own sense of reality and truth, Mark Arends passionate idealist Winston is seen looking up with almost puppy like appreciation at his torturer, Tim Dutton’s bespectacled bureaucratic nemesis, O’Brien.
With their ensemble chillingly capturing the novel’s sense of `normality’ and robotic unreality, Icke and Macmillan have done Orwell proud. In so doing they partly repudiate his thesis. Freedom of expression – and thought – still lives!
First published in Reviewsgate, Feb 2014