Perfectly timed to provide some light relief from Brexit, Headlong’s stylish, thrilling adaptation is back in the West End for a limited run.
67 years after its publication, George Orwell’s dystopian novel remains depressingly relevant. In this production, which was first at The Almeida in 2014, Big Brother’s poisonous propaganda flashes across a giant video screen. It’s a constant reminder of how Winston Smith is enslaved to a “telescreen”, which aren’t as ubiquitous as they are in 2016 of course. When he and Julia seek refuge in an antiques shop, their illicit liaison plays out on screen so we feel like voyeurs – there is no privacy in this surveillance state.
Then there’s the fact that the Party has permanently imposed austerity, which Winston’s comrades cheerfully put up with because “there’s a war on”. After the seismic events of the last week, the Party’s use of doublethink and two-minute hates to brainwash its members had also acquired a chilling new relevance. Judging from the snorts on Tuesday night, I wasn’t the only audience member who worried as much.
Andrew Gower as Winston in 1984
It’s not just the cleverly drawn-out parallels to present-day Britain that make this production so brilliantly discomforting. Writer/directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have drawn on Orwell’s appendix to furnish the play with a disorientating new beginning: a book club (or are they Party members?) in 2050 ponder the legacy of 1984.
If we’re not sure what’s going on, Andrew Gower’s nervy Winston certainly doesn’t. He’s blown about the stage, leaping from anger to confusion and love to fear. Julia is played by Catrin Stewart with a passion that makes their downfall at the hands of a deeply sinister O’Brien even more tragic.
After that disorientating opening, the audience isn’t allowed to get comfortable either. Blinding lights and screeching sound effects kept me on the edge of my seat. The culmination is a harrowing, gory Room 101.
A new ending brings a chink of hope. Or does it?
1984 is at the Playhouse Theatre until the end of October