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Orwell's 1984 Reimagined for the Post-Snowden Age at the Almeida Theatre

17/02/2014 15:26 GMT | Updated 18/04/2014 10:59 BST

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In this post-Snowden age, where privacy it seems is all but dead, a reinterpretation of Orwell's Big Brother and the omnipresent surveillance state certainly has a lot to offer. But this production at the Almeida is over-engineered, with high concept overwhelming the text, creating an inconsistent, uneven show.

It starts with the cast all sitting on stage talking about the book - Winston's diary/1984. It takes a while to work out what is going on but eventually it materialises that we are watching a book club set in 2084 who have been reading 1984. And that, to them, 1984 is a piece of historical fact.

As the book club chat, we see Winston Smith (Mark Arends) in 1984 start his forbidden diary, the writing that will lead to his downfall. Smith lives and works in Oceania, a powerful totalitarian state where the population is under constant surveillance and where the actions of the state are never questioned.

Yet through this first third of the play, because of this ongoing narration by the book club, Winston is quite a passive character. It's extremely hard to get to know him or sympathise with his situation as he is largely mute. As a result, we are robbed of the opportunity to fully appreciate Winston's suffering, what is driving him to rebel like this.

Once the book club eventually leaves, Winston's rebellious affair with the mysterious Julia (Hara Yannas), a co-worker who may well be an agent of the state's Thought Police, happens so suddenly that again, it's hard to be emotionally involved. After only a few minutes the couple have gone from perfect strangers to plotting the downfall of the state.

I was not alone in struggling to empathise. Lines such as Julie's exclamation that she hates the state because "they want to abolish the orgasm" and Winston's criticism of her that she's "only a rebel from the waist down" caused ripples of laughter around the auditorium rather than shudders of fear.

The production design is also confusing. I think it was trying to be timeless but the heavy wooden furniture, Winston's cardigans and hostess trolleys all made it seem very 1970s.

Modern elements were present - the state's police are SWAT teams with assault rifles and there are plenty of spy cameras and mobile phones, but why weren't the book club reading 1984 on tablets or iPads? Surely if you want to capitalise on Snowden's revelations, on the privacy of online data, you would make more of computers, how we are all plugged in and how that may well cause our own downfall.

The play though has a very strong final third, when finally Winston comes face to face with O'Brien (a superb performance from Tim Dutton), the state apparatchik that breaks Winston's resistance in Room 101. The final long scene of torture is very graphic - so much so that a couple of the audience felt the need to leave the room. It is superbly done.

Director Rupert Goold recently gave an interview to the Guardian, after taking over as Artistic Director at the Almeida, where he talked about how "every show should aim to change theatre." That desire to take a heavy hammer approach may explain some of the issues here.

Of course we don't live in an Orwellian totalitarian state today - the fact that we can read 1984 and stage productions of it is testament to that. However there is plenty in Orwell's nightmarish vision that rings true today. And this production is at its best when it shows us these moments, rather than hammering the message home.

Daily, society in 1984 is required to participate in two minutes of hate, where the people hurl abuse at footage of the prescribed enemies of the state, refusing to let the "traitors" be heard or to explain their position. And that is done so well here, a dark reflection of how politicians in the West simplify our enemies to serve their own ends.

And the manipulation of the ever-changing realpolitik of 1984, where Oceania was once in alliance with Eurasia, now a sworn enemy, offers itself as a mirror on the shifting politics today, especially in the Middle East where dictators we supported for decades are now (and, they would have us believe, always have been) enemies of liberal democracy.

The purpose of the futuristic book club is to cause us to question whether we in 2014, not long after Winston is broken in 1984, are living in similar? I appreciate the production is trying to tag on to the Snowden revelations with that but the debate of whether we live in an Orwellian society masquerading as a democracy is not a new one.

However a cultural discussion and representation of these big political questions is worthy but this production didn't work for me. The Donmar is showing Privacy, a new play by James Graham, later this year specifically on the surveillance state today. Here's hoping that is a more successful exploration of this important subject.

Almeida Theatre, London

To March 29, 2014