1984 | Headlong Theatre Company

March 2014 | The Almeida Theatre, London

The biggest decision made in this otherwise true-to-book adaptation is the inclusion of a post-1984 historical debate. In dystopian London, Winston Smith commits thought-crime and begins a diary, an act which frames the novel and inevitably leads to his demise. Within the novel Orwell alludes to no future after Winston, only that totalitarian fascists remain stamping on liberty and freedom of thought in perpetual domination, but creators Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke propose that it’s the inclusion of The Principles of Newspeak Appendix that structurally redefines the book and any further reading thereof.

The appendix is a footnote not written by Smith, who is unconcerned with such details, so the reader is confronting the text alongside someone from Winston’s future. To demonstrate this the play offers some scenes of these future historians disseminating the diary, anticipating and responding as they read. Unfortunately it’s staged like an annoying book group and it comes across as a clunky summing up themes and situations as if the audience couldn’t do it for themselves. This is reminiscent of the epilogue in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which is thematically similar to Nineteen Eighty-Four from the perspective of a woman-turned-childbearing slave; stained by such an approach. On the other hand it’s a clever device: staging thus shakes up the scenes, acting to disorientate the audience within Smith’s dreamlike episodic consciousness of his environment and is then a theatrical Doublethink of contrary interpretation. Icke citing the appendix which supports his view, suggests three dimensions; this group could be looking at the text to write the Appendix, or disseminating the diary/Orwell’s novel, or what Winston imagines when he starts the diary.

The unravelling of the play nicely structures in repetition and choppy back and forths, such as when illustrating the purging of party members. Winston vacantly gazes while his work colleagues converse. We see an identical scene with one fewer colleague and so on, with each detail carried out with a new impetus, and his lost gaze becomes weighted with insight. Likewise the performances are all strong with the frustratingly compliant co-workers and Smith’s almost schizophrenic paranoia. The scenes are well-selected, apart from the future references that remain undecided in this review.

The screens surrounding and looming over the space were effectively used, fulfilling the role as poster/master/spy on the inhabitants of Airstrip One; the audience too are bombarded with propaganda. The use of a live-feed from a backstage set helps create varying levels of voyeurism: as audience, through the characters and then as the ominous ‘Big Brother’ and the faceless authority. The torture scene sensitively avoided actual violence, casting us into darkness “Teeth!” then revealing a brutally maimed Winston (contrary to the constant surveillance we’ve experienced so far) but retains the sense of horror.

The deconstruction of Goldstein’s Book, which was uncreatively ‘read’ out loud was a disappointment. One was reminded of how Blind Summit (2009/10) had executed this task with an absurd and grotesque lecture directly to the audience with pop up slogans, images and lots of energy. Headlong seemed happy enough to have a few selected lines read in Mark Arends’ droning voice presented on a screen. A few other moments were lost, such as major dramatic elements which failed to have much significance for the characters. There is a classic moment in the story when Winston is lazily doing the morning routine with the TV when the screen suddenly barks at him to try harder; an early signpost for the reader establishing the extent of the intrusion on privacy (1940s society recognising this as a nightmare, too.) The audience seemed to anticipate this because there was a chuckle, but the performance failed to play up this episode. Likewise when O’Brien turns his screen off, an act never seen by the central characters who don’t have that privilege, they vacantly comment “you can switch it off?”. However, Orwell’s text rightly plays more into awe and envy, at least with the benefit of internal narrative. During the same scene Winston tries wine for the first time; which turns out to be a false deal that turns into a trap (it’s wasted on him anyway from years of cheap gin) but this is shrugged off by the text and the actors with no allusion to it.

Designer Chloe Lamford discusses the bland and historically vague set, but it was strangely homely in comparison to the action. When one reads the novel, the environment and set of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Richard Ayoade’s The Double seem more appropriate to Winston’s also using thematic similarities that the protagonists are alone in their observations about the absurdity of their world. It was only when the action breaks from the office to the Ministry of Love which is harshly clinical with hostile white walls that the design becomes interesting. That said, the costumes worked as generic and timeless with different styles from the blandest of decades leading to 1984.

Headlong’s 1984 is still very good, their third major show (second adaptation) at the Almeida and moving to the West End has been well received among critics, students and scholars in their efforts to satisfy all three. However perhaps such acclaim is generous: live-feeds are the limit of their experimentation, and the detail and structure of this well-loved text takes second place to the company’s ambition to dramaturgically redefine the novel’s treatment of space and time.

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