BWW Reviews: 1984, Almeida Theatre, February 13 2014
"Orwellian" is a word understood by millions of people who have never read George Orwell's books; "Big Brother" and "Room 101" are television shows that feel like they have been around since 1984; and screens fill our homes which we use to "interact". But art, and nowhere is this more true than in theatre, renews the powers of old ideas; transforms reality in that shared space of the auditorium; and breeds new respect for the familiar, and not contempt. There's no room for the complacent once the lights go down
Headlong's 1984 (continuing at the Almeida Theatre until 29 March) is a searing adaptation of the twentieth century classic, pulling no punches in its portrayal of Winston Smith's nightmare nor in its insistence that the everyman victim of Big Brother is an everyman not just for Stalin's post-war Soviet state, but for any government with the weapons and the desire to control dissent - which is to say all of them. That we never quite know when or where the action takes place - and how it repeats and twists over the play's duration - locates the action in all times, past, present and future, and in all places under all governments.
Mark Arends invests his Winston Smith with a slowly revealed, quiet nobility, his will only cracking when faced with the horrors of the Ministry of Love's Room 101. His nemesis O'Brien is played by a brooding Tim Dutton, affecting a Stasi apparatchik look from East Germany's grim 1980s. As Smith's lover Julia, Hara Yannas boils under the surface with anger and passion - an impossible combination for Smith to resist.
The principals get strong support from a consistently excellent cast, who appear and disappear seemingly without movement and inject plenty of the darkest hue of comedy into the unfolding disaster. Creators Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan are also served wonderfully well by a set designed by Chloe Lamford that is both blandly municipal, but reeking of evil, before its extraordinary late metamorphosis into the infamous Room 101.
At 100 minutes all-through, 1984 is not a relaxing evening after a full day's emailing (and who else is reading those?) but it's a compelling adaptation of a warning to the future that is every bit as required today as when it was written. If the Big Brother of Communism has survived only in North Korea, 21st century technology has made Winston Smiths of us all - whether we like it (most of us do, it seems) or not.
Photo: Tristram Kenton