Taking an iconic book like George Orwell’s 1984, one which – let’s be honest – is stronger in the philosophical ideas and vision it proposes than the storyline it lays out, and adapting it for 101 minutes on the stage is what most would consider impossible – even madness to think it can be done.
However Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan ambitions are beautifully accomplished in their current performance at the Playhouse Theatre.
Reordering the story they plunge the audience directly into the discussions generated by the original book in a book club. The richness of the adaptation is deepened as scenes simultaneously twist and loop between time frames marked by blinding darkness. This serves the play in many ways: from cultivating the sense of disorientation of central character Winston and his thought-crimes, to laying out the regimes frightening Principles of Newspeak to displace notions of narrative and dialogue.
The loops echo the themes of the malleability of time and reality that Big Brother uses to manipulate the populace. Without a single reference to Stalin throughout the play, the sense of oppression, paranoia and injustice is set, leading to the doomed love affair of Winston and Julia that rolls into the play’s final sequence – the imprisonment of Winston. These final scenes are not for the faint hearted; the brutal state sponsored torture feels very real, and with an excellent cast and stage design, the stark philosophies of Big Brother and the extent to which they will control all thought and actions is laid bear with tremendous effect.
This play is as much an experience of a slice of Big Brother society as it is a story or a vision of a hopeless future. This is also a play that requires some appreciation of the themes before heading to the stalls, so read up, and book your seat.
1984 is currently showing at the Playhouse Theatre, London – tickets are available here.