Watching Big Brother: 1984 at The Playhouse, London

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Oceanians gather for the daily Two Minutes’ Hate. [image source]

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

Published in 1949, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel that, no matter when it is read, serves as a cautionary tale for the future. “We should never have trusted them,” say those wary of Big Brother – a totalitarian Party operating on a global scale and controlling the people through nonsensical mantras (“Freedom is slavery – War is peace…”), omniscient telescreens, and a distillation of language which aims to abolish “thoughtcrime” by removing access to words – the very vehicle by which we express all thoughts, subversive or otherwise.

Played out over 101 minutes, this stunningly eloquent adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, which transferred from the Almeida to the West End’s Playhouse last April, offers a fresh and provocative interpretation of the tale of Winston Smith’s Oceania. The show serves as a good introduction to the genre for newcomers, and will also appeal to those who, like me, hold Orwell’s text close to heart.

As the clock strikes thirteen, the curtain rises on a drab world of offices and colourless homes on the bottom half of the set. The top half is taken up by a large screen, on which several scenes and details are shown, including Winston’s original crime: writing the first word – or date, rather, a dubious “1984?” – in his contraband diary, in which his is writing his story “for the unborn”. By writing, we are told, the writer imagines a future and confirms a past. And what worse crime could one commit in a world in which only the present exists?

And then we understand, as the scene unfolds, the framing device for the play: Winston’s story is being told as part of a reading group discussion some time after 2050 and the downfall of Big Brother, in a world which is to all intents and purposes just like ours. The question pondered is whether the book is a work of fiction or a historical account by an author whose act of rebellion has led to him being “deleted” from public records and, therefore, from history.

Set changes consisting of dramatic bursts of neon lighting followed by short intervals of silent darkness add to the overall buildup of anxiety as Winston struggles to keep track of what is real.

Sam Crane’s Winston Smith is a broken man, driven to near-madness by the regime. He “deletes” people (unpersons) for a living and so knows what his fate will be if he disobeys the party. Nevertheless, he is compelled to revolt, and this compulsion is propelled forward when a woman, whom he had initially suspected of being Thoughtpolice, confesses her love for him.

Julia, played by Hara Yannas, is a sensual rebel, concerned with “killing Big Brother” through acts of pleasure: sex, chocolate, coffee. Each delight is a dagger in the Party’s heart. She is, as Winston angrily calls her, “only a rebel from the waist down”. But in a world of thought control and the denial of pleasure, even sex is a massively political act.

The Two Minutes’ Hate – a powerful device in the novel, the impetus for which is not unfamiliar if one has had the ill-fortune of encountering the comments sections of online news stories – is handled beautifully and brutally in the play. Up on the large screen flash images of the enemy du jour, who is captured and beaten down, thanking Big Brother for curing him before he is shot dead. Meanwhile, the citizens of Oceania watch and rage against this man who has dared to defy the Party.

We are reminded of this scene later in Room 101 by Tim Dutton’s O’Brien, who is at first somewhat bland, and then quickly transforms into an intimidating figure who towers over Winston. Big Brother, he says, does not tolerate subversive thoughts – “not even in a brain waiting for a bullet”. All rebels must be cleansed before they are killed. All must carry but one thought: a singular love for Big Brother.

And so when Winston begins his diary, and then starts his love affair with Julia, his road to the dreaded Room 101 is already laid out before him. In one of the most effective set transformations I’ve ever seen, Winston and Julia’s shared room, their inner sanctum, folds away to become the stark, whitewashed Room 101, a place where there is no darkness – only searing lights and unimaginable torture. Or, rather, the most fundamentally imaginable torture, which leads to the story’s inevitable conclusion.

In a world like ours, where Big Brother has lost its ominous connotations and has become the voyeuristic prolefeed that regularly disgraces our television sets, stories such as this one are needed to jolt the viewer into active, critical thought. How like Newspeak is our lazy, abbreviated language of text messaging? How unsettled should we be that our sexuality lives on the border between taboo and neurosis driven by a media which simultaneously promotes and vilifies the plastic and impersonal bodies we deem as a beauty ideal? How like the Two Minutes’ Hate are those awful tabloids that package vitriol into attractive layouts and sell it to us?

Watch Headlong’s 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre until August 23. Click here for more information.

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