Headlong's audacious re-working of Orwell's '1984' is great, queasy theatre.
'1984' returns to the West End from June 2015. This review is of the show's 2014 run.
Headlong’s adaptation of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is such a sense-overloadingly visceral experience that it was only the second time around, as it transfers to the West End, that I realised quite how political it was.
Writer-directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have reconfigured Orwell’s plot, making it less about Stalinism, more about state-sponsored torture. Which makes great, queasy theatre, as Sam Crane’s frail Winston stumbles through 101 minutes of disorientating flashbacks, agonising reminisce, blinding lights, distorted roars, walls that explode in hails of sparks, figures that silently materialise from shadows, and the almost-too-much-to-bear Room 101 section, which churns past like ‘The Prisoner’ relocated to Guantanamo Bay.
It’s easy to be distracted by the sound and fury, and the clever structural tricks – it was only upon rewatching that I realised how directly it asks the question: could we be in ‘1984’ now?
Crane’s traumatised Winston lives in two strangely overlapping time zones – 1984 and an unspecified present day. The former, with its two-minute hate and its sexcrime and its Ministry of Love, clearly never happened. But the present day version, in which a shattered Winston groggily staggers through a 'norma'l but entirely indifferent world, is plausible. Any individual who has crossed the state – and there are some obvious examples – could go through what Orwell’s Winston went through. Second time out, it feels like an angrier and more emotionally righteous play.
Some weaknesses become more apparent second time too. While Hara Yannas’s creepily naïve Julia, Tim Dutton’s malevolently suave O’Brien and new cast member Crane’s Winston all impress, they’re essentially ciphers, not characters, something that’s less masked by techy flourishes if you’ve seen the show already.
Nonetheless, unless you’re a theatre critic I’m not sure you’d feel the need to put yourself through this brilliant but brutal production again; and if you do, then any familiarity will be lost in Room 101, a sequence that might make Blair himself blanche.