Theatre review: 1984 at the Almeida

A scene from 1984 by George Orwell @ Nottingham Playhouse. Directed by Robert Icke.
(Opening 16-09-1

A scene from 1984 by George Orwell @ Nottingham Playhouse. Directed by Robert Icke. (Opening 16-09-13) ©Tristram Kenton 09/13 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: - Credit: Tristram Kenton

It’s a harrowing fact, but 1984 is that rare type of book that ripens with age. The Almeida’s theatrical interpretation is a typically stylish, highly detailed and terrifyingly relevant affair in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

Charting the rebellion and inevitable downfall of repressed Oceania resident Winston Smith, Orwell’s 1949 classic has always felt more like a fictionalised essay than a piece of driving narrative. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have wisely built upon this premise for their adaptation – it is a play that asks uncomfortable questions and immerses you in a world devoid of entertainment, character and privacy.

Stylistically, 1984 has everything you’d expect from Rupert Goold’s Almeida. The monolithic (and inventively used) television panels, searing bright lights, eerie wireless radio soundtrack – for a dystopia that prides itself on bland uniformity, this is as rich detail as you could hope to find.

The omniscient presence of Big Brother must be a thrilling prospect for a theatre director and the use of glass panels and quick-fire changes between scenes brilliantly give the impression that the thought police are never far from view. Furthermore, the rhythmic dialogue and use of repetition lend the piece its own sense of choreography, which often comes to define the characters as much as their stunted Newspeak.

Much like the book, the characters’ repressed expressions stop you from truly investing in them, but they play their parts nonetheless with gusto. Mark Arends captures the raw, chafing frustration of Winston and, while he occasionally borders on whiney, it is mostly offset by Hara Yannas’s devilish performance as Julia.

This is a faithful adaptation that doesn’t hold back with the chilling finale, but Icke’s narrative innovation is to frame the story with scenes of a post-dystopian world looking back at Winston’s diary – a fate alluded to in the original book’s appendix. Even in this supposedly free world, the readers are repeatedly distracted by their mobile phones and, as you would expect, allusions to our own CCTV culture are laid on thick.

While mirroring real life with the story is obvious, it is also unavoidable and Icke’s aforementioned framing makes the point hit home harder than you might expect. This play won’t leave you feeling upbeat; it probably won’t make you want to see it again, but it will undoubtedly make you think. Maybe even twice.

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