“Where do you think you are?”
Nothing is for certain in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s brilliant adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. The eight-strong cast is superb in their various roles as the plot zigzags, swerves and loops through Winston Smith’s crusade to find Truth in a society where 2+2=5 and clocks strike thirteen.
Make no mistake: Big Brother is watching you. The Party formed superstate Oceania before anyone can remember and they’ve been adjusting history and placating the population with telescreens in every room ever since.
Nobody knows what’s real anymore except, maybe, Winston.
With a small cast and only one set change, those who haven’t read the book may feel lost without Orwell’s extensive descriptions of the world Winston inhabits. But fans of the book will find this play to be a delightful exercise in doublethink (the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accept both of them).
Instead of a straight retelling of Orwell’s novel the adaptors approach the play through the book’s appendix, The Principles of Newspeak, which throws into question the story’s reliability and brings the act of reading into centre-stage.
As co-creator Robert Icke explains in the program notes: “From the moment you read, “It was a bright cold day in April,” you’re reading the book with somebody else, because that person has footnoted it and written you an appendix, so there’s another reader in your experience of the novel at all times.”
So then, what are we actually reading? Is 1984 (written in 1949) a recounting of past events or a warning for the future? Or both? “Where do you think you are?”
The play perfectly captures this disorientation. It begins, as the novel does, with Winston opening his notebook ready to vent his thoughtcrimes (all crime begins as thought. In Oceania, you’re a criminal even before committing the act.) But a book group suddenly appears to discuss his diary. Is this a future imagined by Winston (played by Matthew Spencer) or is this a representation of us discussing the book?
Set designer Chloe Lamford’s work with blinding, flashing strip lighting and a haunting library-like set creates a phenomenally disorientating atmosphere.
This is a play that will follow you for days. Your journey home, surrounded by people glued to [tele]screens, will send a sharp chill down your spine.
“The people are not going to revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s really happening.”
The play is on at the Playhouse Theatre until 5 September and it runs for 101 minutes.