George Orwell was about 30 years out describing the shape of things to come in his dystopian masterpiece 1984. If he’d plumped for 2014 then Big Brother would be very much a reality.
What started out as a far-fetched piece of science fiction has become all too prescient as government leaks expose mass surveillance through CCTV, phone tapping, the collection of our emails and search habits. You could become paranoid thinking about how our every move is recorded, analysed and assessed.
Is Big Brother watching and, what’s more, how is he influencing our everyday lives and decisions?
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s own theatrical masterpiece, their adaptation of 1984 for a co-production by Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and London’s Almeida Theatre, hit a raw nerve when first performed in 2013. It toured, moved into London, then the West End.
It opened again last week, at the Playhouse Theatre, for its third stint in the West End, and it is still stunning audiences.
Harrowing, visionary, thought-provoking and brilliantly devised, this isn’t a play for the squeamish. I think I would have thought twice about bringing two small boys to see it, as one dad did at the performance I enjoyed.
Lighting and sound by Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons are so effective in disorientating both the audience and our antihero, Comrade 6079 Winston Smith, that it alters perception.
Time seems distorted and on a loop, the cast appear on stage in a flash of blazing light and discordant noise (disappearing just as fast), reality as a concept is thrown into question. Here is theatre at its most intelligent, frightening, entertaining and inventive.
I’m not sure that anyone not familiar with the book or story would know what the hell is going on – a couple sitting in front of me were constantly asking each other to explain.
But, for the coachloads of students studying it for exams, or those of us who have read one of the most remarkable books of the 20th century, this is how to make a deceptively clever story shockingly relevant to the modern day.
Post war Orwell could see the way the wind was blowing especially with the rise of Communism in the Eastern Bloc and the advent of the Cold War. It was a era of secrets and spies, traitors, a paranoia that “they” were out to get us (whoever they were.)
In the book of 1984, and as a framing device here, we’re in the future when Smith’s thought diary has been found and is being read and discussed.
The world is split into three great continents with Winston Smith living in what was once Britain. Now it is a country permanently at war, governed by an oppressive regime that controls, entirely, the lives of its people.
Starvation and poverty are rife but, worse, the government watches everything, everywhere, and controls our very thoughts.
It has a programme to eradicate the past. Events, the wrong sort of people, memories, even time, are erased, unwritten, unremembered and Smith works industriously doing Big Brother’s good deeds at wiping out history.
But he’s not happy. We see scenes in his office canteen replayed, each with a little less of their content than before as the past disappears.
Andrew Gower’s Smith tries desperately to hold on to his memories but rebellion almost costs him his sanity and his life.
We first meet him trying to make sense of everything. He looks bewildered, uncomprehending, not sure that he is being told the truth. What is the truth? Big Brother’s version of events or reality?
He thinks that he has found allies – first in a woman, Julia (Catrin Stewart), who claims she loves him and is on his side – and then a man, O’Brien, who says that he works for the opposition.
Gower has an expressive face – in that he looks permanently baffled at what is happening around him – yet he fails to fully capture the anger and frustration that Smith feels. Instead his voice rises at the end of every sentence as though every statement is a question. Perhaps it is. He questions authority and look where it gets him – Room 101.
Look away now if you’re distressed, of a nervous disposition, or unable to face your worst fears. Room 101 contains your worst nightmares and, for Smith, it is his ultimate trial.
Angus Wright is outstanding as O’Brien. His calm, measured, unemotional voice would be a perfect replacement for the late Patrick Allen who recorded the government’s public safety messages ahead of a nuclear annihilation.
He gives a ruthless and chilling performance as a party member who targets Smith. His nonchalance while inflicting torture is terrifying.
Elsewhere Daniel Rabin as O’Brien’s sidekick, Martin, haunts scenes. He has almost no lines but makes his presence felt with piercing eyes and unsettling manner as he deliver the gin and shadows his boss.
Stewart, as the radical Julia, is equally unnerving. You’re never quite sure she is who she says she is. But then who is in this complex, wonderfully told, nightmare?
A thrilling, shocking, profoundly disturbing piece of theatre which deserves its own place in the annals of history.
1984 plays at The Playhouse, London until September 3.
A doubleplus from Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan with their disturbing, visionary, brilliantly devised adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.