Sometimes They are Three. Sometimes They are Five. Review of 1984.

For Headlong Theatre Company’s performance of 1984, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have brilliantly brought to life Orwell’s novel of a watchful dystopian world.

The setting is fantastic. Wooden panelled walls and doors set the stage for an office building and canteen. Grey box files line the walls, and windows allow for teasing glimpses of yellow-lit figures looming outside the walls. There is an excellent series of white soundproofing tiles at the top of the stage set which double as a projection screen for the filmed aspects of the evening.

1984 Thought Criminal
There is very little not to love about the play. The setting is excellent, and the scene changes- few as they are- are impactful and smart. The room 101 is nothing but white (walls, floors) but excellent use of light adds to the horror of the torture. The light is also regularly turned on the audience- it allows us to momentarily become as disorientated as the victims on stage, and sympathise with the blind state they find themselves in.

The production feels like a movie— it seems to have a well-matched soundtrack, and incorporates lots of filmed scenarios to enhance the set abilities. We use the screen to see writing on notes and to hide away with Winston and Julia. The use of the film could look like a cop out for not performing tricky scenes and set changes, but it’s a genius move. It’s a wonderful moment of theatre when the walls come down and suddenly the small room appears, live, with Winston and Julia still in it.

Hara Yannas’s Julia is well cast- stiff, firm, and decidedly in need of respite from the regime of Big Brother- even if her methods may not be as clear and as much for the greater good as those of Winston. She approaches the deception of Big Brother more for personal and selfish satisfaction rather than for the good of humanity – motives cleverly addressed in her hesitations to Winston’s committal to the cause.

I was not, however, overly convinced by the choice of Mark Arends for Winston. His portrayal of Winston- stooped, shuffling, timid— did not match the strength and conviction of the Winston of the novel. He was, however, wonderful in the torture scenes- even if most of the audience was watching with their hands over their eyes. It was gross, messy, brutal, and wonderfully delivered.

Tim Dutton’s O’Brien excelled in this scene- terrifyingly cruel, but calm, brutal and steadfast in his questioning of Winston. The man delivered a brutal torture scene without raising his voice or breaking a sweat.

The production sticks very much to the script of Orwell’s novel, and concentrates on bringing it to life in a clear and easy to follow performance. Where it falters is by the additions. There are scenes to do with a book club, which are meant to bring the subject matter into modern society, but they are painfully unnecessary. The most incredible tribute to Orwell is that in many ways his predictions were so true, and so relevant to life 70+ years later. If there were a desire to move the subject matter to the current decade, a simple change of clothes would have allowed that, rather than the tacking on of an unnecessary and gaudy accessorising plot line.

With that small critique aside, this is a very good production which is made so in part by fantastic set design. Headlong have made very, very good use of the set and multimedia features to bring to life a still relevant classic. It’s brutal, it’s brilliant— and it’s excellent food for thought.

War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.

Go see this play.

**** ½

1984 is currently traveling around the UK – check here for details– and will be back in London in February 2013.

1984 quote

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