Saturday, 21 June 2014

1984: An extraordinary ‘flashy’ and disturbing performance that pulls you out of your comfort zone **** (Playhouse Theatre, London)

Even if you haven’t read George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ you may be familiar with words such as ‘Orwellian’ or ‘Big brother.’ The protagonist, Winston Smith (Mark Arends) plunges you into an uncomfortable state almost immediately. He has numerous panic attacks and is unsure of where he is. From the opening scene, he’s alone writing privately on his distain for Big brother and –within a flash second – is surrounded by people discussing the literary context of Orwell’s novel.

In this Big brother world that Oceania is, civilians take part in a ‘two minutes of hate’ session that entails aggressively screaming and shouting much of what they have been indoctrinated with as displayed on a large scale screens. The words, ‘war is peace,’ and ‘freedom is slavery’ come up on Tim Reid’s video designs. As a viewer, it is a scary sight to endure as it undermines the daily comforts of an English democratic society.

The stagecraft and character of Smith make a startled audience anxious, uncertain and stress: after all, it’s a world where no one can be trusted. Smith, who has suspicions about Julia (Hara Yannas), a supposed purist of the party admits to loving him and they begin a clandestine relationship that they believe Big brother has no knowledge of. Yet in reality, He knows everything. Arends and Yannas show variations of rebellion through the lovers’ gestures of tasting hard-to-get chocolate, sex, and display of disorder and destruction; throwing clothes, furniture and paper all over the room. Together, they plot to overthrow the party with the counter-revolutionary party, ‘The Brotherhood’ and once O’Brien (Tim Dutton) poses as a member, all hope of a free future diminishes. He ensnares them simply to trap and stop them.

Credit goes to Chloe Lamford for her stage design of the scene that separates the lovers with sirens and alarms, which lead to a nightmare; enter room 101. Surveillance cameras, speedy soldiers, helicopter interference, and loud airspace noises cover the corners of the stage. Smith is clothed in a straitjacket and the torture commences. Dutton plays a calm and collected O’Brien who presents the ideals of the party as if it were rational yet every time he hears Smith answer ‘4’ to his question, ‘what is 2 +2?’ flashes and silent screams shift the stage that sees him electrocuting Smith leaving the rebel spitting out blood, teeth-less and fingerless. The worst is to yet to come. Room 101, the brainwash room that uses fear to drive out thought crimes dig out Smith’s own fear: rats. Just as the rodent's squeaky sounds begin to accumulate, he cries out desperately, ‘do it to Julia!’ and it is here that he relinquishes all love for her.

This adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan is a winner with its collaboration with Headlong, the Nottingham Playhouse and the Almeida. After the success of sell-out runs at the West End, they have added more dates to stage one of the best English novels of modern times.

1984 is showing until to August 23rd at the Playhouse theatre