19841984 :a Headlong Company adaptation of George Orwell’s novel at Richmond Theatre

24th October, 2013

‘The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly  exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been.’

                                                                                                     (Arthur Koestler, ‘Darkness at Noon’)

Most people have heard of Big Brother, Newspeak, Room 101 and Thought Crime, but how they fit together in Orwell’s 1984 eludes many. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s ambitious adaptation of the dystopian masterpiece, opens in 2050 after the autocratic Party has fallen. We are eavesdroppers on a book club from the distant future discussing a document from the past – Winston’s diary. They believe, as the Party would have wanted, that Winston Smith never existed.

Our perceptions of reality are never stable, for the year 1984 initially runs concurrently with the book club discussions. Winston is seen struggling to write a diary ‘for the unborn’ – a ‘thought-crime’ punishable by death. As he writes the audience watches a close-up of the words on a big multi-media screen above the stage – we are inside Winston’s head.

Winston is an individual who works in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth; his routine task is to skilfully rewrite the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet inwardly, he rebels against his harsh totalitarian world that demands absolute obedience and controls him through the omnipresent telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, the symbolic head of the Party.  Every thought that Winston makes against Big Brother is Thoughtcrime, even embracing his newfound love, Julia is ‘a blow struck against the party’. His very relationship with her is ‘a political act’.

Orwell’s Appendix to 1984 sets out the principles of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania. Newspeak is the only vocabulary that gets smaller, denying citizens the power of expression and making it almost impossible to argue heretical opinions

Here, the environment is sterile of relationships; life is on a perpetual loop. The concoction of past, future and present all at once illustrates the passing of time as well as the effectiveness of the system and how it can distort memory and imagination. We have a brilliant staging concept of stage double-think. Manipulation of stage space is a device which dismantles the fourth wall: the audience are simultaneously spectators, fellow conspirators, invasively voyeuristic.    Tim Reid’s video screen design allows the audience to follow the main characters even when they are off-stage, thus becoming a sometimes uncomfortable part of the surveillance. Cameras follow the talented Mark Arend’s Winston and Hara Yannas’ Julia off-stage into a hidden tiny room inside an antique shop like a secret surveillance operation.

Chloe Lamford’s set brilliantly recreates a 1950s utilitarian décor as Winston’ s ideals  emerge. Then the set is stripped amidst a din of drone sounds, static and shrill electronic bleeps. The audience’s sense of space and perception is utterly shattered, just as the truths Winston and Julia believe in, revealing the secret room behind, exposed and unprotected. All our referencing is ripped away; in its place an empty reality for Big Brother to fill amidst the haunting signature rhyme of Oranges and Lemons returns.

The dehumanisation of Winston is viscerally shocking – an uncomfortable torture scene imagined when the stage warps in to darkness, but the blackout it is too protracted that it undermines any sense of suspense.  Winston’s own confessions – his very own words are reworked – a chilling reminder of how the manipulation of language is the most powerful tool of autocratic oppression.

A little disappointing is Tim Dutton’s, O’Brien, who doesn’t have the menace or authority of Richard Burton’s film version.  But O’Brien’s physical accompaniment to preparing ‘the end of the individual’ is a chilling remodelling of the Eucharist – he hands them bread and wine before he reworks his trustworthy, confidante  demeanour to threatening torturer.

When Orwell wrote 1984, he was responding to the Cold War, not contemporary terrorism. He did not anticipate the full reach of digital technology. Even so, he was correct in seeing a future where the government had greater control but also a belief in the people’s ability to use language for dissent.  Much of Orwell’s dystopia resonates with us in the face of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA.  All this may seem to be the endgame of indiscriminate data mining, surveillance, and duplicitous government control.  So we now look to 1984 as a clear cautionary tale, even a prophecy, of systematic abuse of power taken to the end of the line.  In 2013, we have contemporary concerns about how far we are able to trust fact, our own anxieties about online information, our dependency on organisations such as Google as an interface through which we view the world.

If the main story of 1984 is language and freedom of thought, a crucial part of the Snowden case is technology as a conduit of ideas. In Orwell’s novel, technology is a purely oppressive force, but in reality it can also be a means of liberation. Snowden has claimed that tech companies are in collusion with the government, but he’s also using those same channels of technology to tell his story.

Overall, Headlong’s condensed 90-minute adaptation is superb.  Like the novel, our perceptions of truth and reality are constantly challenged and a reminder of its continuing relevance, even beyond the ways in which it has become part of our mental furniture. It raises more questions than it answers. Can we can trust the words? As Orwell states ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’

With recent revelations of the American NSA eavesdropping on European leaders ,  Angela Merkel   recently stated that we need to restore trust:

‘Words are no longer sufficient, true change is necessary, trust has been severely shaken’

The affair dredges up memories of eavesdropping by the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany, where Merkel grew up, and is an emotive topic for many Germans – a visit to the Stasi museum and looking at these records of people who had essentially been unpersoned is unsurprisingly raw though the Stasi didn’t have the technological sophistication present in 2013.