We all know about 1984, whether we have read the book or not. George Orwell wrote it just as the world was staggering out of the most brutal war ever, with the Stalinist regime victorious in the East, and McCarthyism taking hold in the US. But it has become shorthand for any discussion of state repression, surveillance and attacks on civil liberties.
This production by the Headlong theatre company takes that shared knowledge as its starting point, with characters in the future discussing the text – Winston Smith’s diary – and its meaning. Is it “real history”? Is Winston a reliable witness? How relevant is it to today?
The production brings together Orwell’s context and our own. The 1940s feel of the sets and costumes combines with torture scenes which evoke Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
From the start there is a sense of utter paranoia, uncertainty and mistrust. Faces emerge from shadows; sudden noises and flashing lights or exploding electrics disorient. Repetition and circular scenes confuse us, along with Winston, about where and when we are. And, of course, the clocks are stopped at just past 1pm.
The performances last 101 minutes, so this is a condensed version of the story. Winston must very hurriedly fall in love, decide to rebel, and face his comeuppance. But, while I missed being inside his mind more, the production is effective at concentrating the tale for impact.
The initial contact between Winston and Julia was unexpectedly moving. Sam Crane as Winston is fragile, brittle with suppressed anger, while Hara Yanna’s Julia is full of life and physicality. They need something more than their controlled existence. Their relationship is both an escape from Big Brother’s regime and a defiant political act.
It’s notable that the ubiquitous Big Brother TV screens are pointed away from the audience, so we never see what the characters see. But there is a huge screen above the stage on which we watch Winston and Julia off stage in their most private moments.
There is a sense of doom, and as we move into the final section this ramps up to horror. After all, Room 101 doesn’t contain things that are slightly annoying, as the current TV show would have it; rather Big Brother reaches into your heart and pulls out the thing that you know you can never face.
The torture and interrogation are powerful – white lights hurt your eyes, screams pierce the darkness, and Winston’s torment is captured in close up and projected on the big screen. This is a strong production, which you should catch if you can.
“I am black, beautiful and proud”
A turbulent journey though Iran
Women between revolution and counter-revolution