“Where do you think you are, Winston?” This is more of a mantra than a question in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s co-creation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Whether it’s the chilling, bespectacled official O’Brien, Big Brother’s disembodied boom, a kindly present-day reader, or in bed with Julia, the protagonist and thought-criminal Winston Smith is tortured by questions of time, place and truth. Questions the Party that perpetually keeps watch on him – and all in Airstrip One – ruthlessly blurs and rewrites.
This production works deftly and thoroughly at unpicking the tensions of Orwell’s imagined future, the play’s time-shifting helping explore the reliability of memory, and mutability of history. The un-language of Newspeak is particularly faithfully rendered – the play has been written giving great weight to the often-neglected appendix Orwell wrote for his novel, The Principles of Newspeak, which provides a future context to Winston’s story.
The waif-like Winston, played by an extraordinarily talented Mark Arends, looks like a Quentin Blake illustration in modern-day Hackney Wick. The sex scene with Julia – “what we just did was a political act!” – is a particular highlight, as he whips off his knitted tank top amidst frenzied hurling of documents, yelling “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” and awakes from the gaunt, jittering wreck he has hitherto been.
Hara Yannas plays the robust, “rebel from the waist down” Julia brilliantly, her vulnerability increasing as she’s further drawn into Winston’s battle against the system. One, very minor, downside were the modern-day analysts of Winston’s “diary”, who – played like a frumpy Islington book club – were a bit of a nuisance at the start of the play. But then, as they said themselves about the book, it takes a little while to get going.
A screen backdrop adds an extra dimension to both on- and off-stage action. It plays us Winston’s first visit to the apparently telescreen-free room he and Julia inhabit in achingly transient happiness. It also provides an extra, gory angle to the horrendous torture treatment of Winston in the stark, white Ministry of Love. The beads of sweat in his hair, the blood spilling from his face. All there for us to watch. The audience is all-seeing in this, like Big Brother, but simultaneously side by side with Winston on his journey to and from truth. It’s a bit of doublethink well worth experiencing.
1984 is a co-production with Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse. Almeida Theatre, London. 19 Feb-29 Mar 2014