28 June 2016, Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue, London, WC2N 5DE
“Well Bugsy Malone it certainly isn’t” commented the woman behind me with nice English understatement, as the final applause broke out. I knew what she meant after a continuous 100 minutes of sinister, threatening narrative as Orwell’s devastating dystopian novel unfolded before us. And the reason it is so frightening of course is that it isn’t dystopia at all. It’s all too real and far too close for comfort. As a character remarks near the beginning of this adaptation by Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, it doesn’t matter when you read it. It’s still the immediate future.
This version also demonstrates just how imaginative you have to be to reinvent a challenging novel like Nineteen Eighty-Four in a completely different medium. The design relies heavy on very loud, often sudden, grinding noise and a lot of black out. The feelings of characters are encapsulated in sound and light and works pretty well although I was less happy about the projected scenes. As Winston Smith, the central character, questions his own thoughts and sanity before eventually famously falling foul of O’Brien and Room 101, his emotions and crises are presented in media which make the whole experience feel surprisingly immersive. Lighting designer Natasha Chivers and sound designer Tom Gibbons certainly deserve lots of credit.
Andrew Gower, who plays Winston, has a hint of Michael Sheen about him and gives an outstanding performance. He stumbles about and looks confused and then satisfied as he forms the relationship with Julia (Catrin Stewart – good). In the torture scene – so graphic it makes the blinding in King Lear look like a tea party – bloodied, bowed and terrified Gower is totally, and horrifyingly convincing. As the smooth talking, authoritative and ruthless O’Brien, Angus Wright is in fine form too.
Beyond that the piece is successfully pinned together by an ensemble who play minor roles and become, for example, the noisy, menacing police when Winston is arrested.
This is quite a wordy piece – with a framing device suggesting a group of people discussing the novel in a book group – but there’s a lot there to make you think about how people’s thoughts and reactions are, often unknowingly, affected and controlled. A fascinating thing to see at a time when all our governing mechanisms – whatever your politics – seems to be in the worst disarray anyone can remember.
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