1984 – Review – York Theatre Royal
1984 – Review
York Theatre Royal, September 2014
by Emily Lawley
George Orwell’s 1984 is, undoubtedly, one of the most important and well-known novels of modern times. It often appears near the top of ‘Best Novel’ lists and is on many University’s English Literature reading lists. Indeed, that is where I first encounter it.
It is far from an easy book to adapt for stage. There is the challenge of introducing a new language (‘Newspeak’). There are lots of uncertainties about time and place. Plus, there are numerous intertwining plot lines. It is an impressive feat to condense the novel down into a non-stop 80-minutes of action on stage. Yes, that’s right, there are no intervals in this play.
I am concerned about how this production would portray the complex political and cultural ideas of the book. It is hard to present them in a clear way to those who are unfamiliar with the book. However, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation highlights the similarities between Orwell’s work and our contemporary world. You can see this in the eerie parallel between Big Brother watching the characters’ every move in the play and our modern day surveillance culture. Perhaps Orwell’s depiction of perpetual war and strict public mind control is not a million miles away from the current state of our world.
With a small frame in which to deliver the entire play, the stage is an incredibly important element. Set changes are almost impractical. The set remains pretty much the same throughout the play, except at the very end. The location of the actors changes from office to home and to woodland, so you do at times have to employ some serious leaps of imagination. But the scripting cleverly and clearly lets you know where the action is taking place every time there is a switch of location.
Above the stage is an area that is used as a giant Telescreen. In the novel the screens are in every party members’ house. They convey announcements and constantly watch them. In this show they also show some of the action that happens away from the main stage. It works really well, especially during the very aggressive ‘Two Minutes’ Hate’ scene. This daily broadcast shows instances of ‘thoughtcrime’ and public executions that all citizens must watch. It makes for very compelling viewing.
The whole play is a relentless assault on your senses. It also very loud sound effects in abundance. Recurring, screeching, fingers-down-the-blackboard white noise and a few loud gunshots that actually make me, and several people around me, jump out of our seats. There are also lots of bright flashing lights and moments of total darkness. The dark is often followed by what feels like the brightest light you have ever seen. It is all effective though. the viewer feels totally disoriented and unsure of what is really happening. Could it all be ‘mismemories’ and dreams?
With a relatively small cast of nine all of the actors, apart from Matthew Winter who solely plays Winston, take multiple parts. At times I do find it confusing (Mrs Parsons and her daughter suddenly change to being Winston’s mum and sister which, until a few lines had been spoken, I don’t quite grasp). But it mostly works fine. Matthew Winter and Janine Harouni play the main protagonists of Winston and Julia. They do a fantastic job. Winston’s time in the the dreaded Room 101 is, as the director intends, very difficult to watch. This is mostly down to Winter’s skillful performance. Tim Dutton conveys O’Brien’s bloody mindedness and unbending loyalty to Big Brother/The Party superbly. You even find yourself submitting to his insistence that ‘2 + 2 = 5’ before Winston does.
Our association of phrases from 1984 like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ with light-hearted television shows is brought into stark reality when you see Orwell’s more sinister true meanings behind them. The fact that the phrases, along with many others from the novel, are still so widely used shows the accuracy of some of his predictions for the future.
This play is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Some may find the final section a little difficult to watch. A couple behind me did leave at this point of the play. However, it is a very interesting, full-on and extremely thought-provoking adaptation. As they would say in Newspeak, it is ‘doubleplus’ (‘really’) worth going to see.