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Review: 1984, Playhouse Theatre 'Orwell on Speed'

05/07/2016 10:03 | Updated 05 July 2016

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I fear there will never be a time when Orwell's dystopian nightmare won't resonate and, sadly, in this post-Brexit, post-Snowden, post-Manning world of ours, it's impossible not to see warnings in its themes of constant surveillance, unchecked power of the elites, dominant single socio-economic ideology, media manipulation turning fiction into facts, and withering punishment of any dissenting voices.

Depressing times. And a depressing novel. But there is no way this is a depressing show as Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan collaborated to create an electric production that hurtles through its 101 minute running time. This is Orwell on speed.

I saw this play when it first opened at the Almeida back in 2014 and it has lost none of its fervour, and its radical approach genuinely seems as fresh as ever. (Interestingly, in the interim, theatrical staging seems to have steered more towards a minimalistic style a la Ivo van Hove rather than a visual feast.)

But for all the power in the visual presentation, my reservations on the substance of the production remain.

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The story is framed as if being discussed by a book club, think-tank-esque group of people, all set in the future. Why? Because Macmillan and Icke used the oft-overlooked Appendix to 1984, where Orwell hints at the collapse of Big Brother, (defeated not by enemies either abroad or within, but because it swallowed itself whole trying to reinvent language) as a launch point for coming at this well-known tale from another angle.

And so that is why we find ourselves, at the start of the play, not directly with Winston, but with the book club. And the book club are discussing 1984 as historical fact, not fiction, as if the events and society Orwell feared had actually come to pass. As if they are the post-1984 society Orwell hinted at. To them, the book 1984 is a historical record written by an unidentified person who bore witness to a dark time in their history.

Perhaps this was considered a clever spin but, for me, it creates a few problems. Principally, Winston Smith (Andrew Gower) is relegated to a passive protagonist. Rather than watching him seize the day directly, we have to watch him through the prism of this book club. It makes him seem almost like a puppet, playing out the story the book club are reading.

And whilst we're talking about that 'seize the day' attitude, well, there's not much of it here that is convincing. Winston's suicidal drive to challenge Big Brother springs out of nowhere and, even if you go with it, his defiant words don't seem believable given his feeble spirit.

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Winston seems a weak man. There's no seething tension here, no undercurrent of anger in him that would make his sustained rebellion believable. Even when O'Brien (the wonderful Angus Wright) tests his mettle with, "would you throw sulphuric acid in a child's face if we asked you to?" Winston's immediate response of Yes is not convincing.

And neither is the affair with Julia (Catrin Stewart) Winston's tricksy love interest. She's all ice to his well, not to his fire as he doesn't have any. But there's little chemistry here and it's a leap to believe that that theirs is a deep passion, and, even if it isn't meant to be, there's not enough to believe that Winston would risk his life over her, even if he fears she may well be a member of the secret police.

But that's not to say that the future/past set-up doesn't offer opportunities too and its best pay-off comes as Winston's treason is finally exposed and dragged to the horrors of Room 101. It's then that we realise the dated 1970s-style wood-panelled rooms with antiquated furnishings that has defined the set until then is actually a deliberate attempt by the State to keep its inhabitants locked in a form of poverty. For the State reveals itself as a modern state with terrifying capabilities, and with every scientific breakthrough at its fingertips to keep its citizens broken and obedient.

That this production returns once again to the West End demonstrates how successful and popular it remains. And its energy remains as vital as when I first saw it. What I would have given though for an extra fifteen minutes added to the running time and more investment made into character development, motivation and chemistry. Maybe the creatives just got a bit too hung up on getting the running time down to the magical 101 minutes.

Playhouse Theatre, London to October 29, 2016
Tickets from £15.

All images by Manuel Harlan.

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