George Orwell’s first rule for avoiding stale writing was: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” As such, if he were updating 1984 today, he’d be forced to recast concepts such as Big Brother and Room 101 to waft away the reek of association that clings to what they have become: relentlessly mauled cultural carrion.
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stage adaptation manages some kind of recasting of the novel, bookending the plot with a sort of half-academic, half-local book club discussion – taking place around 2084 – of Winston Smith’s diary and 1984’s appendix. The readers question whether the horrors Winston wrote about ever really existed, but for all this clever reframing, the core ideas that Orwell first released into the world in 1949 do not get updated, and as such they feel somewhat quaint, and even crude. In a world where people daily consent to being surveilled via their online footprints and where Edward Snowden – surely the closest thing we have to a modern-day Winston – has shown how covert and subtle government eavesdropping can be, the idea of a Big Brother figure coercing people so blatantly or being stupid enough to openly show its face seems almost laughable.
What does not feel quaint or crude, however, is the theatrical spectacle that is this production, now back on an extended run in the West End after starting out at the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013 and heading to London’s Almeida in 2014. From voiceovers, to giant video walls and cinema-style jump cuts, this is fresh, audacious, boundary-pushing theatre that attacks the audience with shards of light and head-splitting sounds that run like a barbed-wire pipe cleaner between the ears.
In a moment resembling The Truman Show on acid, Chloe Lamford’s wood-panelled set is disassembled in the final half hour and replaced first with a vast stretch of Rothko-esque blacks, then stark walls of unforgiving white. As Belgian director Ivo van Hove – an influence Icke admits to – has shown (most effectively in his 2014 production of A View from the Bridge), when on-stage clutter is removed, actors’ and spectators’ emotions can spread like a gas to fill the newly available space, and this is the case here. The play throws punch after brutal punch at the audience and Winston (Andrew Gower), whose blood splashes like a Jackson Pollock under the booming orders of O’Brien, played in brilliantly austere robotics by the surreally lanky Angus Wright.
Yet the on-stage fireworks do little to shed new light on what has become over-familiar and (heretical as Orwell’s band of ever-devoted followers might find this comment – sometimes stale) material. As the audience filed out of the theatre, few looked shocked or challenged – most, undisturbed by the play’s message about surveillance, were already burying their heads in their phones.
For Icke though, 1984 marks just a first step in what is British theatre’s most exciting directorial career. His 2015 adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia was bolder in reshaping its source material, and bolder in its questioning of theatrical possibilities. If that trend continues, his adaptation of Hamlet at the Almeida in 2017 will be unmissable.
1984 runs until 29th October at the Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue, London WC2N 5DE. Tickets from £19.84