It would be easy for a stage version of 1984 to be simplistic in its delivery, a work so familiar as Orwell’s classic. But this critically-acclaimed Headlong production, which has now returned to the Playhouse Theatre until September, is anything but.
Brave, harrowing and strangely disturbing, this incredible production is both ingenious and wonderfully creative. For starters, the innovative set is truly something to behold, remarkable in its constant power to leave you wanting more, before finally revealing its secrets in the climax of the show. The sharp, staccato-like scene changes, which pull the audience from past, present and future, combine with a fittingly claustrophobic use of video, sound and lighting to add to the nervous tension of this dystopian wasteland.
Along with its thrilling set and unique delivery, 1984 is also anchored by an incredible cast. Sam Cane is barely off the stage as Winston Smith, exuding both desperation and humility from the beginning, while there’s tremendous support not just from the likes of Hara Yannas as Julia and Tim Dutton as O’Brien, but the whole, tiny cast.
The production feels very at home at the Playhouse, where the size of the stage – much smaller than some of London’s more domineering, ballsier prosceniums – simply adds to the feeling of entrapment facing Winston and the Brotherhood.
What’s most inventive here though is the way the show uses Orwell’s appendix on the Principles of Newspeak as a vital part of the narrative. With sections taking place in some nebulous time after 2050, the audience is taken on a journey that is very much about truth – is Winston Smith’s tale a faked account about the machinations of the diabolical Party, or a reliable narrative; a warning for future generations? This take, combined with the fantastical story fans of the novel will be expecting, gives for a remarkable show.
Perhaps somewhat brashly, the production takes full advantage of that familiarity; taking liberties with the assumption that the whole audience already knows 1984’s mythos. This could pose problems for those less familiar with thoughtcrimes and Room 101 – it’s worth doing some backreading to truly grasp the realities facing those on stage. With the whole thing only lasting for 101 minutes (with no interval), things move quickly.
That said, there’s plenty to love here, regardless of your existing Orwellian credentials. There’s much to strike a chord with our existing political systems, social issues and censorship, for instance, such is the legacy of 1984. But ultimately it’s just a great piece of theatre: it’s loud and powerful, gutsy and bold, gripping and gory. It’s certainly deserving of the many plaudits and accolades it already has, and certainly deserves some longevity as a serious piece of drama for the stage.
1984 is showing at London’s Playhouse Theatre until September 2015, book now at Ticketmaster.co.uk.