Thursday, 12 June 2014

I Love Big Brother: 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre

George Orwell's 1984 is probably one of the texts’ that has most affected me in my life. I cannot say I have always loved it or that I did not struggle with its politics and deceptive language the first time I read it at 14 or 15. I loathed having to read the sections of O’Brien's book certainly. But I understood it and its suggestions burned deep within my psyche as a teenager, in a mind already troubled by pigs that looked like Stalin (aged 13). It was the beginning of my fervour for dystopian novels that lasted a few years, perfectly echoing my cynical teenage ways and I read my way through Atwood and Huxley, Burgess and HG Wells. 

Since GCSE coursework, I picked it up a couple of times at university for references but never read it properly again. Somehow it haunted me and the less than pleasant nature of the subject and the gruelling energy required for digestion somehow stopped me from rereading it. It's been 14 years. 

When the Headlong production at the Almeida Theatre received rave reviews, I knew I wanted to see it (it was at the Nottingham Playhouse prior to this). I knew that its relevance in today's screen-filled, observed world was almost not worth mentioning to the educated; I just wanted to see how it would be produced. Would it still shock and make one question everything. Or was I just older and less cynical now, hardened against Orwell's didactic warnings. Ready just to observe the way it was interpreted. Was I hell. 

I finally got tickets to the production when it transferred to the Playhouse Theatre on the Embankment and went in with no pre-conceptions with my standard theatre friend D. Light Wednesday viewing we knew it would not be,

“Will we be very depressed do you think, afterwards?”

“Most likely,” I answered, “but in the good way, the Byronic way, the I’ve just got angry about the world, but at least I’m involved way.. You know.”

The thing is, relative to Orwell’s message in the novel is, it did not depress me. Relative to my viewing of the great 1984 film Nineteen Eighty Four with John Hurt and Richard Burton, it did not either. This play is sharp and certainly encourages reflection, but it did not out and out depress me.

The creators, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have created a nimble yet intelligent adaptation. The set by Chloe Lamford is fabulous and so simple, one backdrop really, until Room 101, with a small bedroom partition as the sluttish “room with no screen” in the place that time stood still. The use of lighting, sound and video projections is also perfectly apt for this production, used wisely and well. Cracking through the senses at the exact points necessary and propelling Orwell’s far-too cliché-cluttered Room 101, back to its original terrifying form.

From the beginning of the play the presence of a crowd of people, unrecognisable characters who seem to be discussing Orwell’s novel, work as an impressive narrative tool... almost Brechtian, I thought, so aah... yes we are observing fiction here... This became more confusing as the play went on as characters in the “book club” seem to also be part of Winston’s life and unravelling. Nothing new there you may say, multiple roles, but it felt more uncomfortable, like they were sort of living part of his story as they discussed it, or had already lived it. Was it a novel or a case study or a history book, we may never know.
The lead actors, Sam Carne as Winston and Hara Yannas as Julia were also affective. Though both far too attractive, from what I remember of the novel, this did not affect your belief of them. Carne particularly plays Winston as the reluctant hero that we all know him to be. With a stuttering sort of character, never knowing whether he is in or out, or what he knows, seized by fits of passionate hatred and lulls of quiet dissonance.

The themes we know and love are still there. The demise of language into newspeak, something which thankfully worries me less now as it did 14 years ago, as I see more and more words enter our dictionaries; no snobbery against the #selfie please and thank-you. Yes, doublethink, well we know this can happen.

Screens, screens and watching us ALL THE TIME, for the paranoid luddites this will certainly ring true, for the normal person who browses the internet, this will feel like a nagging headache. Yes we should be careful. Even in the room with no screen they are seen. 

 Love. Is it there? I wasn’t convinced in this production, but then I never have been. From the moment I first read 1984, I did not believe in the love between Winston and Julia. She is his soapbox, his humanity, the one who shoves him from the comfort of thoughtcrime to out and out treason and hatred of Big Brother. But love, I don’t know. In this production, she very obviously personifies human desires, wants, needs, all the things banned by Big Brother. Chocolate and sex she is... To be honest, I always thought Orwell was a little unfair on Julia; he seems to hate her and love her equally. She is brave but where is this directed. Can we really believe that someone in that circumstance would only care about their animal wants while risking so much... but that’s just me.

A particularly resonating scene of the production for me was the two minutes hate, a government form of brainwashing by whipping the subjects into a frenzy of hate against the party enemies by showing them shocking footage. This is something where live action beats the page and although we all know about extremist regimes that practice this. It was recognising similar traits in our society that shivered down my spine. Hatred of particular groups or people is all too easy when we are looking for someone to blame.

Room 101... the terror, the torture the mind. This was also a chilling scene as I said. The set resembled a mental institute and reminded the audience or certainly me of the egocentric nature of our fear and our rebellion. Especially exaggerated in this production,
 “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
Well, yes and this is the route of all the fear of Big Brother, if he can change in our inner thoughts, then we are doomed.

I do not know how the creators of this production managed to fit so much into 90 minutes. Even those with no knowledge of Orwell’s novel would comprehend and consider the messages in this play... Go see it. It’s a must.

1984 is at The Playhouse Theatre, London
Running until 23rd August.

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