1984***** (Almeida Theatre, 24 February 2014)

Posted: February 25, 2014 in Theatre

1984-almeidaStarting in Nottingham, Headlong’s adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel has been going the rounds for several months now, picking up almost universal critical praise on its way. Therefore, there is a temptation to emulate the story’s hero, Winston Smith, and defy conventional thought by labelling it complete and utter rubbish, deserving of an immediate place in Room 101. But that would be a lie, because this really is 100 minutes of the most electrifying theatre. In terms of set and costumes, the production remains rooted in 1940s Britain, but adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have extended Orwell’s dystopian vision to the modern day and a century further into the future. Their biggest challenge must have been to replicate the shock effect that the book had upon readers in the immediate post-War era for modern theatre audiences who know Big Brother as a reality television series, are used to being watched by security cameras as they walk down every street and live in a world where media manipulation dominates all areas of life. Yet shock us they do, partly because of the durability of the original work and partly because of their total mastery of theatrical skills. We are startled by visual images, changing sets, blinding light followed by total darkness, projections of images and films on to a screen above the stage; we face a constant bombardment on our senses, whilst, at the same time, a spare and faithful script is giving a rigorous workout to our brains. Every second of the running time is bleak and discomforting, but also mesmerising. In a strong ensemble, Mark Arends’ Winston is an everyman of unheroic appearance, Hara Yannas’ Julia is alluring and ambiguous and Tim Dutton’s O’Brien is a cold and efficient bureaucrat. A final word of praise to the Almeida for putting many of its rivals to shame by again producing a superb programme that is packed with fascinating information. Top marks all round.

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