Following a highly successful run first at the Nottingham Playhouse then at London’s Almeida theatre, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s Nineteen Eighty-Four transfers to the West End’s London Playhouse Theatre.
Embarking on the mission of adapting a book as influential as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four inevitably poses a challenge, particularly [when over time the book seems to have acquired the reputation of “unadaptable” – and even more so] if one chooses to begin from the end.
The show opens in absolute darkness accompanied by the daunting tolling of bells. Then, six people sat around a table, immersed in a discussion about a certain “book”. They question its meaning, its place in history – asking themselves why it matters so much when it provides only questions, never answers. The ambiguity of whether the text in question is Winston’s diary, Goldstein’s “book” or Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, holds throughout the show. Icke and Macmillan have chosen, somewhat unconventionally, to open their adaptation with Orwell’s often overlooked appendix to the book, The Principles of Newspeak, which, set in a time no earlier than 2050, essentially implies the ultimate defeat of Big Brother.
One of these anonymous individuals claims that this “book” starts off too slow, that it takes its time to give the readers a precise context before the real story begins. In fact, quite appropriately, this new adaptation is similarly structured. Initially the narrative flickers between two moments in time, between two disoriented identities of Winston Smith (played by Sam Crane): the Winston sat discussing amongst friends, at some point in the twenty-first century, or the Winston writing from his bleak room in the Victory Mansions. Through a series of flashbacks, the scenes repeat themselves on stage twice, three times, with impeccable precision, and, like Winston, we find ourselves doubting our own perception.
Gradually the performance becomes fully engaged with the original, more linear narrative, as familiar scenes from the book unfold, the set doubling as Winston’s flat, the canteen, and, less convincingly, as the idyllic bluebell woods where Winston and his accomplice Julia (Hara Yannas) meet in secret. In their first encounter there is sex, chocolate, and paperwork thrown into the air as they strip off their clothes, shouting “Down with Big Brother!” Their intimate meetings in the room above Mr. Charrington’s shop take place on a large screen which, rather aptly, makes up half the set, as the stage is left empty. These scenes initially appear as though pre-recorded, and perhaps cause the audience’s attention to falter. It is only later revealed that they are in fact happening live, backstage.
Suddenly, in that fateful moment in which Winston and Julia are discovered by the Thought Police, the stage is ripped apart – as the two lovers are captured and exposed, down come the walls, the entire set stripped bare, revealing a space nearly three times larger. It is transformed first into a gruesome prison cell, and finally into the infamous torture chamber that is Room 101. This is the gripping climax of Icke and Macmillan’s outstanding adaptation. We squint in the blinding, violent white light which engulfs the empty, aseptic space, in contrast with the dark red blood which streams from Winston’s mouth as he’s brutally tortured before our eyes, both physically and mentally.
During those moments of betrayal and of confession, there is a brief, uncomfortable instant in which the main theatre lights are turned on, momentarily breaking the fourth wall. It is as though Winston Smith is addressing us, the audience, as those future generations in which all hope still lies. He is addressing the audience, but at the same time Orwell’s readers, or the population of the world after 2050… answering the question he pens in the first pages of his diary: “for whom am I writing?”