Although there can scarcely have been a time when the warnings of “1984” didn’t feel urgent, Edward Snowden’s revelations about present-day governmental monitoring of private behavior have turned George Orwell’s dystopia into near documentary. Director and writer Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s startling stage treatment of the material was conceived pre-Snowden and, to its immense credit, its success isn’t due to its immediate relevance. The inventiveness of the production’s approach and stagecraft make for a vivid adaptation as accomplished as it is audacious.
That much is clear from the very opening, staged as the clock ominously tolls thirteen as in the novel’s celebrated opening sentence. We’re in the late 21st century and a clutch of people — possibly some kind of book group — are discussing the novel’s ideas, an idea that chimes perfectly with Orwell’s appendix which investigates everything in the preceding text. Far from being a shallow postmodern device, this adds a further layer of creepiness to the tale, allowing us to see the nightmare as something not in the future but in the near past.
Among the group is the increasingly anguished Winston (Mark Arends) whose story then unfolds as he meets and falls for Julia, behaviour made illegal by the state. Anyone conversant with the global TV phenomenon “Big Brother” (i.e. everyone) will appreciate Orwell’s dangerously prescient understanding of the power of surveillance, made threateningly manifest here via the stage-wide screen above Chloe Lamford’s dingy, paper-filled, wood-panelled office set.
Not only are Winston’s secret attempt at a diary splashed up on it, the screen also allows us to see him when hidden away in a back room with Julia (Hara Yannas). The theatrical cunning behind this is remarkable: Their hiding place is off-stage but we can still see them, and the very act of us watching makes us intriguingly and uncomfortably complicit in the spying.
An all-pervasive sense of dread rapidly fills the auditorium, not only because of the handling of the adroitly paced action but by virtue of the skilled punctuation of smartly timed stings of sound and light.
The so-far missing weapon in the considerable arsenal of up-and-coming helmer Robert Icke (he’s still in his mid-twenties) is his relative weakness with actors. The performances he elicits from most of them borders on overkill — Arends is encouraged to be overtly anguished from the very beginning — and too much is overly signaled. It’s as if the meaning behind every moment is being underlined so as to illustrate everything for the audience. Such over-expressed intent robs the first half of the evening of developing tension.
Everything moves up a gear, however, once Winston and Julia are arrested and everything is ratcheted up to full-scale horror. The set is destroyed, with the stage stripped back to a scarily austere white box that is the terrifying Room 101. Peopled by silent, faceless figures carrying out the torturing wishes of interrogator O’Brien, played with frighteningly sensible calm by Tim Dutton, Winston is threatened with his greatest fear in order to make him confess his crimes against the state.
Icke and Macmillan’s highly visible ability to mesh idea, action and staging makes this a standout production, which has hit SRO success both on its UK tour and on this initial, limited London run. Future commercial success will rest on whether producers are willing to back a production which is less of a thriller, more of a chiller.