[Originally published on On:Yorkshire Magazine: http://www.on-magazine.co.uk/arts/yorkshire-theatre/1984-review-york-theatre-royal/]
George Orwell’s Ninety-Eighty Four is, undoubtedly, one of the most important and well-known novels of our time. 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 encountered it.
Far from an easy book to adapt for stage down to the challenges of introducing a new language (‘Newspeak’), lots of uncertainty about time and place and numerous intertwining plot lines, it is an impressive feat to condense the novel down into a non-stop 101-ish minutes of action on stage. Yes, that’s right, there are no intervals in this play.
I was concerned about how this production would portray the complex political and cultural ideas of the book in a clear way to those who have never read it. 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 – and 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 only one hour 20 minutes to deliver the entire play, the stage is an incredibly important element as set changes would be almost impossible. The set remains pretty unchanged throughout the play until the very end, despite the location of the actors changing from office to home and to woodland, so you do at times have to employ some serious 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 (the screens in every party member in 1984’s house that convey announcements and constantly watch them) and to 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 (a daily broadcast showing instances of ‘thoughtcrime’ and public executions that they all must watch) which made for very compelling watching.
The whole play is a relentless assault on your senses. Winston’s uncertainly about what is truly happening in his world is portrayed by frustrating repeated scenes he has to live through over and over and the disembodied voice of someone who he thinks is the leader of The Brotherhood – the group opposed to ‘Big Brother’ and ‘The Party’. The play also uses very loud sound effects in abundance – recurring, screeching, fingers-down-the-blackboard white noise and a few loud gunshots that actually made me, and several people around me, jump out of our seats. There are also lots of bright flashing lights and moments of being plunged into total darkness followed by being blinded by what feels like the brightest light you have ever seen! It does all have the desired effect though – feeling totally disoriented and unsure of what is really happening and if it could 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 throughout, which at times I did find confusing (Mrs Parsons and her daughter suddenly change to being Winston’s mum and sister which, until a few lines had been spoken, I didn’t quite grasp) but it mostly works fine. The main protagonists of Winston and Julia, played by Matthew Winter and Janine Harouni, are portrayed fantastically and Winston’s time in the the dreaded ‘Room 101’ is, as intended, very difficult to watch, mostly down to Winter’s skillful performance. Tim Dutton conveys O’Brien’s bloody mindedness and unbending loyalty to Big Brother/The Party superbly and you even find yourself submitting to his insistence that ‘2 + 2 = 5’ before Winston does.
Our association of phrases like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ that were coined by George Orwell in Ninety Eighty-Four 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 that is, as they would say in Newspeak, ‘doubleplus’ (‘really’) worth going to see.