REVIEW: 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre, London
1984 has become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
While George Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian state thankfully did not come to pass, many of its ideas about censorship and privacy have filtered into popular culture to the point that it has shaped how we want to be entertained.
The more we see of our stars, the better – no matter the cost. It is in this environment that Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stage adaptation of the novel has been brought to life, and against this backdrop it makes for uncomfortably familiar viewing.
In its innovative use of technology, the staging is a primary reason for this. The webcam-style recording of Winston and Julia in their private space not only amps up the feeling of voyeurism but is reminiscent of vlogging and the chatroom phenomenon – both not dissimilar to Orwell’s prediction of cameras in every home.
The gradual disintegration of the set is cleverly paced with Winston and Julia’s quiet rebellion against Big Brother, while also matching the former’s maddening journey to the truth.
And of course, in true Orwell style, nothing is quite what it seems. The performance itself is censored as it goes along, with certain characters erased mid-scene and others shape shifting before our eyes.
As Winston, Andrew Gower navigated this minefield of truth and trust with an air of perpetual anxiety that eventually spills over into complete hysteria during the Room 101 scene, the dark heart of the story.
It gave the expression ‘puts your teeth on edge’ new meaning, and the repetitive nature of the shrill sound design and flashing lights conditioned you to expect a fresh wave of torture even after it was finished.
An ambiguous ending derived from the novel’s appendix asks the reader to decide if Winston’s book – his first and lasting act of rebellion, and the account on which the whole story is based – comes from a reliable source.
It is a new addition to the tale, and one that works well at circumventing the finality of the original text. Once the seeds of doubt take root, it stays with you long after the play ends.