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1984 review, Playhouse Theatre

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Adaptation can be a story straight from page to stage. The first line is the first line, the structure remains, scene to scene we see what we expect to see. Or, it can be something more. Something capturing the spirit of the story. Something that knows it can't bring the book to life without really bringing it to life and letting it breathe, and play, in this new space. This is that.

As such, it messes with you. It knows what you come in expecting and it doesn't hand it over without a fight. It's intense, surreal and really rather impressive. It's not an easy ride.

We open with a man and his diary, a nervous act, and a group discussing a book. I think it's one thing then it's another. It's 1984 itself ("it changes everything, and yet the world is still the same?"), it's the book within the book, it's another book altogether. It's all of the above or none of the above: it's doublespeak in action.

I worried a little we weren't going to get to the story at all, wondering if this new adaptation is a man believing himself to be Winston through obsession with Orwell's text, but we do get there - just not how you'd expect.

As scenes repeat I felt unsure if it was the monotony of his world, a nightmare or what was happening at all. Moving on things became clearer: Winston is losing his grip on reality in a society that tells him "facts" he knows to be untrue. He struggles with memories and how they can be trusted, and stylistically that's reflected. It's a clever theatrical feat to place us with him in his uncertainty and anxiety.

As the production moves on we stay more with the story, we can settle in a little, albeit into an unsettling world. Blinding strobe lights and piercing white noise keep us on edge, as does the changing of faces, and entire scenes, during blackouts that seem to only take a split-second. The style reminded me of People Places & Things (also co-produced by Headlong) but also that of Complicité and Gecko Theatre - stretching the possibilities of theatre with physical performances and technical touches that almost make you laugh with their simplicity and genius.

The highlight of the production is Room 101. It's handled brilliantly and painfully, and is difficult to bear witness to. It's the perfect balance of what you see and what you imagine in the darkness, and through that it felt genuinely shocking and scary.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Andrew Gower as protagonist Winston has an eccentric, electric energy to him - his feeling of being an outsider feels immediately apparent with a slightly odd vocal inflection, always seeming to be working things out with a confused but determined mind. The character's strength in the face of pressure is remarkable, even as a bloody broken man he has hope and self-belief. It's a real test of the actor that Gower absolutely rises to and excels: his embodiment of this character was kind of extraordinary.

Angus Wright gave another impressive performance as O'Brien, possessing the same sinister charisma I was entranced by in Oresteia - his rhythm and cadence is perfect in depicting power and eliciting fear with such subtlety and nuance.

The character of Julia was sweeter and more flimsy than I'd hoped. Looking back on my first reading of the text aged 16, I wonder if I really wanted her to be an incredible rebel and hero, and maybe she never was. Her activism is limited and naive and the directing and performance from Catrin Stewart highlighted this. Also with little time with her and much of that projected onscreen, she begins to feel a little 2D. Or maybe we're viewing her through Winston's eyes. Maybe he is selfish and she can't ever be fleshed out. See this is the thing with this production - it makes me question things - on stage and from the text, and that feels really exciting for a novel that came out in 1948 and that I loved and studied over 10 years ago.

As much as I loved it, I do think there is a risk that this production will push some people's patience too far at times (as it did with my Dad), with its repeating, surreal sequences - some audiences may switch off, not "get" what's happening and that will bother them, especially going in with an expectation of something quite different. I know that my willingness to wait and see, to work something out, and be messed with is pretty high. I love all that, if the point and the production is strong. Maybe that experience isn't always for everyone, but I do I think if you have patience it has a huge pay off.

1984 is one of my favourite novels and I think I would have been disappointed to have seen it in a straight-forward page to stage adaptation. The text is radical and it feels fitting for this adaptation by Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan to feel so also, even if it is difficult to digest - perhaps especially for that reason.

It feels like lazy commentary to suggest that 1984 is more relevant today then ever, but then of course it is - with government surveillance and media manipulation, and our country at a point of rising tension. After Brexit people tied identity to politics in a way I'd never seen before ("I look and think - they could be one of them"), and stories spiral on social media of rejecting refugees and "benefit cheats", and maybe people roll their eyes at those sharing and judge, and forget to think who put the idea there in the first place. If there was ever a time for a production of this novel to exist, and to actively make people feel uncomfortable, that time is now.

And finally: this production runs at exactly 101 minutes. Brilliant.

1984 runs until 29th October at the Playhouse Theatre (London). 100 seats for every performance are available for £19.84.

Adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan (also directing, with Daniel Raggett)
Produced by Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre