Review: 1984 at Nottingham Playhouse


If you’ve ever read George Orwell’s terribly dark and satirical novel ‘1984’, you will understand that it is not the easiest piece of fiction to transfer to the stage.  Envisioning a state so far removed from our image of a healthy society, the plot deals in distortions and extremes incredibly difficult to capture outside of our imaginations.  Unwisely assuming, therefore, that Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s production could do little to shock me, I soon came to realise that I had heavily underestimated this latest adaptation.

The year is 1984, or thereabouts, as we learn from Winston (Matthew Spencer), a records editor in the Ministry of Truth and the play’s central protagonist.  Trapped in a totalitarian state, and seemingly alone in a system which rejects any form of independence, Winston defies the party and Big Brother by falling for a fellow comrade, Julia (Janine Harouni).  Confused between the truth and lies, love and hate, the play challenges its audience with a never-ending stream of ultimatums as they view the world through Winston’s eyes.  The production deliberately plays with the existence (or lack) of a fourth wall as elements, such as the lighting and sound, became highly visceral and charged during the performance.  Flashing lights and the continual presence of white noise made me feel as though I was on the verge of a seizure, effectively disorientating me so I could share in Winston’s mental agony.  There was a definite influence of Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty as the audience experienced gruesome scenes of electrocution, teeth-pulling and psychological torment, the latter being the most horrific to watch as the defeated and bloodied Winston was filmed like a captured animal, a dribble of saliva running down his chin as he blankly looked out to the audience.

Spencer’s ability to show the complete deterioration of one man under state pressure deserves special credit as he effortlessly transitioned from defiance and rebellion to complete defeat.  Harouni too, in Julia’s relationship with Winston, was very convincing, their intimate moments being captured both on stage and on a screen which produced images reminiscent of CCTV footage and accentuated the omniscient presence of Big Brother.  The use of a suspended screen, however, was not the only indication of constant surveillance.  Windows were used both to reveal and obscure figures walking behind them and leading up to the final and most significant scene in the play, the set was completely deconstructed, so that all that remained was an empty space and the realisation that everything – even the very walls surrounding Winston – are completely within the control of the party.

One thing is for sure, this production is not for the faint-hearted and I won’t be forgetting the horrors of Room 101 anytime soon.

1984 runs at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 26th September 2015.

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