Saturday, 2 July 2016

Review: 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre

Playhouse Theatre
Reviewed on Thursday 30th June 2016

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stage adaptation of 1984 has had a remarkably long life. It was first presented at Nottingham Playhouse way back in September 2013, before touring the UK, playing stints at the Almeida and in the West End, and travelling to both Australia and America. Now it’s back for another run in the West End, and has evidently lost none of its power after three years on the road.

Icke and Macmillan’s fast-paced and furious production treats George Orwell’s dystopia not as some chrome-plated future society but as a living and breathing slice of history. Thus the story is bookended by a literary club passionately discussing the events of the play in the past tense – a canny dramatization of Orwell’s oft-overlooked appendix on ‘The Principles of Newspeak’ – and thus Chloe Lamford’s thrillingly versatile design places the action somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century.

It’s all here though: Big Brother, IngSoc, Newspeak, Doublethink, Thoughtcrime, Room 101 – ideas so potent that they have ingrained themselves into our day-to-day vocabulary. It’s a bit of a squeeze to cram them all into only 100 minutes and still leave room for the plot, but Icke and Macmillan have done a tremendous job of it. True, at times some concepts could do with fleshing out, and true, occasionally the story does feel subservient to the symbolism, but for the most part the balance between exposition and action is well-struck.

Our thought-criminal of a protagonist, Winston, is convincingly portrayed in all his confusion, anger and fear by a stuttering, shaking Andrew Gower. Catrin Stewart captures the bolshy bravado of his illicit love interest Julia well. And Angus Wright, who so memorably played a Blair-like Agamemnon in Icke’s Oresteia last year, is here perfectly cast as a ghoulish, professorial O’Brien, Orwell’s shady thought policeman.

This is a virtuoso technical performance too. Natasha Chivers’ lighting, Tom Gibbons’ sound and Tim Reid’s video combine to form a visceral cocktail of flashes and bangs that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats throughout. Enormous screens above the stage stream ‘live’ footage of off-stage action; bright white lights regularly blind the audience during swift, slick scene changes; and Gibbons’ fidgety audio is a constant, unnerving presence.

But there are problems: the precious tenderness of Winston and Julia’s love is lost in all the technical wizardry, the relentless pace sometimes means Orwell’s subtler themes are lost, and – I’m not sure how this could be avoided – 1984 is almost a cliché of itself nowadays, so the state control of Winston’s world loses something of its horror.

This is nit-picking, though: 1984 is a production of audacious directorial vision, and Icke and Macmillan deserve huge credit for creating such a polished, intelligent and engaging adaptation. This is cool theatre. Really cool theatre.

Reviewed by Fergus Morgan

1984 runs at the Playhouse Theatre until 29th October 2016.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan 

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