1984, Playhouse, London

This was a stunning piece of theatre, which I went to largely on the strength of this review.

The show opens on Winston Smith, sitting at a table and opening a book. He muses to himself about the consequences of the diary he is about to start, the consequences of thoughtcrime.

Then, snap, the show twists into another time, another place. A group of people discuss a book and the reality that book describes. Smith is still present, still sitting at the table, but not interacting with the scene. In his presence on the stage he mirrored the way 1984 is present in the background of any discussion of Big Brother-esque behaviour. We don’t know this scene’s time and place, and the scene nurtures that unknowing. They could be in the fictional universe of 1984, talking about Orwell’s novel. They could be in the fictional universe talking about Smith’s account. Or they could be in our universe, in the future, looking back at the present day where the events of 1984 are in the process of taking place. It’s the play on this final possibility, that 1984 is actually coming true right now in the world outside the theatre, that gives these scenes their power. The play is made up of scenes that are taken from the novel interspersed with scenes discussing the book in this ambiguous other time.

There are two other scenes that I want to talk about. One is a scene that repeated 3 or 4 times, with characters in the scene being unpersoned between repetitions. After the first two times we know how the scene goes, so it keeps making a sort of grisly sense even as people are removed from it. The most macabre aspect is that one of the players in the scene is talking about how proud he is of his daughter for informing on someone, and when he vanishes we know exactly who reported him to the Ministry of Love. Later, in the Ministry of Love, he talks again about how proud he is of his daughter, and it is heartbreaking.

The other scene is at the end, when Winston Smith is in the Ministry of Love and they are having what we might enigmatically call a civilized discussion on the matter of what two plus two is equal two. The whole scene is brilliantly done, with the treatment that Smith is receiving being conveyed by smart deployment of a sound design full of low buzzing and high cracking, and a light design involving columns of high-powered light delivering singular potent strobe-like flashes. That technology works to complement the acting, which is just brilliant. The most powerful moment for me was when Smith, as the rat cage is moved closer to his face, breaks the fourth wall – which has been maintained for the entire production – and pleads, exhorting the audience not to sit there and watch, not to let this happen. To have what feels like a personal request from a man in such very great distress makes for extraordinarily powerful theatre.

It also a moment that, without preaching or getting on a high horse, brings to mind a key question that we would do well to have on our minds as we leave the theatre: are we going to sit there and watch, are we going to let this happen, as the world around us develops more and more attributes that look like something Big Brother dreamed up? That this call was delivered primarily as a way of heightening the drama impressed me a lot. That it also serves to highlight that point is a very clever bit of theatrecraft.

You may disagree that the world around us is developing more and more attributes that look like something Big Brother dreamed up. I consider the matter more or less proven by the Snowden disclosures, but if you’re not, remember that this production was held in London, which is one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world in terms of CCTV. And if that doesn’t strike you as being amiss, the play remains an extraordinary play, weaving together straightforward depictions of the book’s text and scenes that render those depictions ambiguous on the way to a gripping climax when Smith finally cries out a broken man.

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