“Comrade Number” is printed on each ticket. The play runs for 101 minutes. So far, so symbolic. But anyone who has read 1984 knows that there is more to the book than symbolism and plot. The novel’s intention was to make you question the world we live in, to disturb you far past the conclusion of the book; and in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation, they have ticked all the boxes to satisfy both fan and newcomer of Orwell’s famous dystopian love story between Winston and Julia.
This co-production between Headlong, the Almeida, and the Nottingham Playhouse has opened its doors to the West End, and you are initially greeted by a shabby stage, with files stacked up the sides and a dimly lit corridor behind it. Then there is the elephant in the room. When I say elephant, I mean the giant screen hanging from above the stage, a reminder of the ever-present voyeuristic government, through which you become the voyeur yourself, gaining glimpses into what goes on behind closed doors. But in true Orwellian fashion, nothing is as it seems, and the extent of Chloe Lamford’s insane set design only becomes apparent at the climatic end. Sound and lighting throw you further into Orwell’s terrifying world, the soundtrack being jarring buzzes and helicopter noises, combined with blinding flashes and blurring smoke, keeping you fully alert and uneasy.
1984 is as shocking and brutal as the book it is based upon. The cleverness in the play lies in the way we are presented the story. Instead of creating a direct word-for-word adaptation, Icke and Macmillan have approached it with the appendixes of the book in mind. We are first shown a group of scholars studying Winston’s account from the future. Was he real? Is he reliable? What can we believe? Initially it was confusing, but after looking at the questions they were asking, it is a perfect example of the themes that run through book. Doublethink, witnessing one thing, but choosing whether to believe it or not. In turn we become one of them, witnessing the play but having to make our own choice whether to believe in its current significance. We live in the age of information, but how much of it can we believe? Has anything been doctored like Winston did to so many articles? Suddenly a play set in an alternate past becomes alarmingly timeless.
Cleverness aside, the play would have not had the same impact without its outstanding cast. Sam Crane made a nervous Winston, full of fear but never wavering in his beliefs. Hara Yannas portrayed a passionate Julia, rebelling in secret through sex, whilst Tim Dutton’s master-of-disguise O’Brien lulls you into a false sense of security.
1984, the novel, was a response to the Stalinist era that Orwell was witnessing, but 1984, the play, reminds us of the continuing relevance of the story. It will shock you, frighten you, and ultimately make you question the world you think you know.