Review: 1984, Richmond Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

There is no doubting that Headlong's production of Orwell's dystopian novel is one of some power and tremendous ingenuity. I left the theatre feeling genuinely unsettled – but not moved. The truth was I didn't especially care what happened to Winston, or Julia, or Parsons, or Syme or any individual of Airstrip One. This is perhaps a fault of Orwell's text, I have never found the characters of 1984 especially believable or sympathetic. It has always struck me as a novel in which ideas trump humanity.

Hara Yannis, as Julia, was probably the most successful at fleshing out Orwell's original – her Julia has a depth of thought which Orwell's lacks. The rest of the cast are an excellent as an ensemble and, at the risk of sounding like Big Brother, the individual is not important in this production. What matters is the atmosphere generated by the cast, the designers and the technicians collectively. And that atmosphere is powerfully uncomfortable.

The most distinctive feature of Robert Icke's and Duncan Macmillan's adaptation is the attempt to dramatise Orwell's appendix, "The Principles of Newspeak" using a book group which is reading Winston's diary sometime in the 22nd century. While I can see the arguments for this framing device – it reinforces the play's message that 1984 is not a story of its time, but of all times and sets up the questions it wants the audience to leave pondering - I think it is a mistake. It makes heavy-handed what otherwise would have been subtle and comes across as, at best, overly earnest and, at worst, patronising. It is a failure not only to trust the intelligence of the audience but also the quality of the material.

Few stories could be better suited to Headlong, a company known for its digital innovativeness. Diaries are projected overhead and whole scenes are performed off-stage, watched by the audience through hidden telescreens rendering the audience voyeurs and chillingly complicit in Big Brother's surveillance. At one point the sinister O'Brien denies the possibility of revolution among the proles. "They wouldn't," he says, "Look up from their telescreens long enough to notice what is happening." How far, we end up asking ourselves, are we in the thrall of Big Brother? And even more radically, how far is Big Brother already part of us?