The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Spring 2014; Playhouse Theatre Spring-Summer 2014, Summer 2015, Summer 2016
Co-produced with the Almeida and the Nottingham Playhouse, this Headlong adaptation of George Orwell's dystopic novel effectively conveys the plot and much of the darkly satiric vision. But the adaptors' and directors' desire to put their own mark on the final product distorts and interferes with Orwell's style and narrative mode.
Orwell's vision of the near future from the perspective of 1948 is built on logical extensions of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany – a totalitarian state that controls its citizens through propaganda, generated fear of enemies within and without, and the constant rewriting of history. His hero, Winston Smith, works in the ironically titled Ministry of Truth, daily eliminating all records of people the state has decided to write out of its history.
Winston's awareness of this falsification, along with falling on love, leads him to what the jargon of the time calls Thoughtcrime, which consists essentially of just thinking for himself, and the last quarter of the novel shows his arrest and 're-education' through brainwashing and torture.
Much of the novel's power comes from the almost matter-of-fact and prosaic narrative mode Orwell employs, but adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan choose not to tell the story straight-forwardly, all but burying it under layers of narrative frame, stage effects and technology.
They invent a future classroom with students studying the novel, only to have one of them find himself falling into its reality and becoming Winston Smith. To convey the disorientation of that transformation, early scenes are played in non-realistic ways, with repeated sequences, robotic behaviour, amplified voices, blackouts and flashing lights until the now-Winston is fully within the fiction.
Aside from giving a totally wrong impression of Orwell's style, this is all irrelevant and unnecessary, suggesting an infatuation with stage effects for their own sake.
The same charge could apply to the odd decision to play several key scenes offstage, with TV cameras projecting the actors' images on a large screen. While this may have been meant to evoke the constant surveillance that is one of Orwell's themes, it comes across more as 'Look how clever we are with our new toys'.
(With all this distraction by technology and visual effects, it is odd that the production completely omits one of the novel's strongest images, the ubiquitous posters of Big Brother.)
Despite all the static, actor Mark Arends does capture some of the confusion and desperation Winston feels in finding himself out of step with his entire culture. Hara Yannas can't do much with the underwritten role of the girl, but Tim Dutton is strong as the friend-turned-torturer in charge of Winston's re-education in the last part of the play, and it is Dutton's able presentation of the character's sometimes lengthy lectures that most successfully communicates both the sound and meaning of Orwell's dark prophecies.
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