A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing the play 1984 which is currently on at the West End, and I thought I’d write a (not-so) lil’ review about it. What is more apt for a spooky scary October post than an adaptation of a world famous novel that looks deep into the heart of human autonomy and oppressive governments who can control your inner most thoughts, fears and desires? Let’s get cracking!
SPOILER WARNING: There are some minor spoilers for the plot of 1984 in the below as well as a major section at the end.
1984 is a dystopian novel which was written by George Orwell in 1948, and is narrated by protagonist Winston Smith, your average, run-of-the-mill 39 year old man, who lives in the state of Oceania. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, under the totalitarian government whose leader is dubbed Big Brother, which runs Oceania with an iron fist and all seeing eyes. There is only one political party (aptly called The Party) and it rules over Oceania unopposed, in perpetuity. Anyone who questions The Party’s authority is immediately ‘unpersoned’, aka killed, and all record of their existence is erased from the government’s records. There are even rumours that certain Party officials called the ‘Thought Police’ can read people’s thoughts, making the citizens of Oceania terrified of committing ‘Thought Crimes,’ and being whisked away for even thinking against The Party. Orwell writes of a terrifying world where not even your own mind is safe from governmental intrusion. Throughout the course of the book, Winston slowly becomes involved with an underground movement against the Party called the Brotherhood, which has potentially dire consequences for himself and the people in his life. Despite being deeply afraid of being taken away to Room 101 – a place where your biggest fear becomes a horrific reality, Winston continues to find ways to overthrow the Party, in small yet significant ways.
Remains faithful to the novel – The theatrical adaptation of ‘1984’ is incredibly faithful to the book (bearing in mind that I read it a good eight years ago, so my memory is a little fuzzy!) You immediately get a sense of the oppressive world in which Winston lives, with the use of large screens which show live video feeds of the show as it is happening. These act as a constant reminder that in Oceania, every apartment, street corner, public and private space is being recorded and watched by the government at all times. Winston’s slow burning hatred towards The Party, repressed for years, eventually bubbles to the surface, and lead actor Andrew Gower depicts this delicate balance of fear, anxiety and anger extremely well. As a character, however, Winston and I have never truly gotten along. Perhaps it’s the way my mind has been trained to expect a story to unfold, but even in my distant memories of reading the book, I always find myself wishing for more action on Winston’s part (unfair, I know, as he is living under the rule of an all-knowing, seemingly omniscient government, But I need my car chase scenes and explosions, dammit!)
I do also have some issues with Julia, Winston’s love interest and the lead female character, although this is more with her representation in the book than the play, which is reasonably two-dimensional. Her main purpose in the novel is to act as a catalyst for Winston’s introduction to the Brotherhood and rebellion against the Party, with her initial desire to overthrow The Party and political activism being quickly replaced with her romantic relationship with Winston. That being said, Catrin Stewart did well with her portrayal of Julia in the play, with her initial mysterious disposition, anger towards the Party and eventual love for Winston and despair at their situation – that they can only act on their love in secret.
While the play, of course, cannot encompass the many complexities of the novel, with a lot of the narrative existing in Winston’s head and various B plot lines being omitted for timing purposes (e.g Winston’s relationship with his mother, and how this shaped him) I think the actors, playwright and directors did an excellent job of adapting the book for the stage. There were also some very good omissions made, such as with the Brotherhood’s ‘manifesto,’ a book that dictates the movement’s political beliefs, which is relayed pretty much in its entirety in the novel. This section of the book is so dry, being an amalgamation of numerous liberal and socialist theories that were floating around in the twentieth century, that I literally fell asleep reading it numerous times. It almost made me abandon ship on the whole shebang, so I was happy to see that they condensed this nicely in the play.
(Speaking of falling asleep, I did have slight qualms with the fact that the play two hours long with no intermission. Don’t get me wrong, it allowed the audience to become fully immersed in this horrific dystopian world, but even I, a couch potato of epic proportions, need time to stretch my legs. Especially on a Friday night, after a long week at work, where a sugar boost from the intermission ice cream was desperately needed to keep me going! The second hour wasn’t long or boring in the slightest, but a brief intermission would have been appreciated. END SEGWAY)
The Staging – The staging was exceedingly well done, and honestly the best part of the show, such as in the opening scene, when everything happening on stage is actually happening inside of Winston’s mind. To make this evident to the audience, characters would appear and disappear from the stage in only a few seconds of complete darkness, with Winston remaining in the same spot looking very confused throughout. The audience is just as disorientated as Winston appears to be, which helps them form a pretty instantaneous connection with the main character. I am still trying to work out how around five people managed to get on and off stage so quickly in TOTAL DARKNESS in such a smooth fashion, and while I expect there were a few bumped heads in rehearsal, everything went off without a hitch on the night.
The way they staged Winston and Julia’s hidden room in the antique shop was also perfect and so very clever, as while it could have been easily constructed on stage, the room was instead hidden behind a set wall and videoed live onto a screen that was visible to the audience. When Winston and Julia are happily talking about how they’d found a safe space without any ‘telescreens’ or cameras watching their every move, they are ironically being recorded the whole time. Because, of course, Big Brother is always watching.
(I have more thoughts on the staging at the end, but spoilers be afoot so beware!)
Wrap it up
All in all, I would give 1984 a solid 6/10. If I was judging it based solely on its faithfulness to the novel, it would get a 9/10 or even a 10/10. For overall enjoyment however, it didn’t always shine. I didn’t always feel completely engaged with the story or characters, and perhaps due to the slow pacing felt my interest waning towards the end. I am not a huge fan of how the plot line unfolds, although the ending is wonderfully excruciating as always. Winston as a character never really comes into his own, and you tend to feel like he is just on the cusp of figuring things out while never quite grasping the crux of it all. That being said, the play paints a vivid and eerie picture of Orwell’s dystopian world in which every movement, action, and thought is monitored by the government’s all seeing eyes. Which, in today’s modern and technologically advanced world, is becoming an ever-more prescient and potentially real threat with each passing day. You get the feeling that Mr. Orwell was the one that had some kind of all-knowing, all-seeing portal into the future, but we simply never took heed of his powerful and daunting warning.
1984 is playing at the Playhouse Theatre in London until the 29th of October 2016, so you still have a short amount of time to see it! Plus you can get tickets for a bargain price of £19.84 which made me chuckle. While it’s coming to the end of it’s third run, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if a fourth run appears in the near future, so don’t worry if you can’t make it down to see it this time around…!
Ok, so there were two particular scenes that I thought were remarkably well staged, but in writing about them I reveal pretty major plot points, so MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, only read the below if you’ve read the book!
The transformation from Winston’s work place, The Ministry of Truth, and his hidden room with Julia into Room 101 was incredible, as the entire set was completely deconstructed and destroyed, a metaphor for the destruction of Winston’s life and everything he had built with Julia. With alarms blaring continuously, the stage is stripped down, erasing all evidence of Winston and Julia’s time together, with the dark, mysterious black set being replaced with harsh and intrusive white walls and floors. Nothing can be hidden from Big Brother, and I absolutely loved how they showed this is such a vivid manner.
Another scene I thought was particularly well done and unnerving is when Winston’s co-worker Syme is ‘unpersoned’, and a scene that he was previously present in is repeated, with every action, movement and speech repeated in an identical manner. The characters continue to behave as they had done while Syme was present, with one character even bumping into ‘Syme’ (even though he is no longer physically there) and another waiting for Syme to finish his sentence as he had done in the first scene. Winton’s society is built and run on such a rigid routine, which means everybody instantly recognises even a minor change, but they all just adjust to it seamlessly and without question. By pretending not to notice the difference, they protect themselves from being ‘unpersoned’ themselves, as everyone is afraid of the omniscient and all-powerful Big Brother. The staging, however, shows that while Syme has been vaporised from existence, his presence still permeates the air of the Ministry of Truth, and is still felt by his co-workers and fellow comrades, though they try to hide it.