1984 is currently playing at His Majesty’s Theatre, on tour from London’s West End. The piece is a two-hour distillation of Orwell’s core dystopian narrative, set to lights with a local cast. It is impossible to properly dramatise a classic, but this has a good go, and at least evokes some of the dogged doom of the original.
To open, I should probably make some comment about how pressing the play is in today’s political climate. As the playwrights Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan wrote: “Even more now than last time we visited, Orwell’s dystopian vision of a surveilled and totalitarian world seems horribly relevant.” But at what time in history has it not been? Feed whichever political chip you want into this play, and it will probably spit out a winning ticket. Politics is boring, mostly because it is repetitive. 1984 is perpetually relevant because it isn’t really about politics, but human behaviour.
To that end, the acting is appropriately human. Ursula Mills as Julia and Tom Conroy and Winston are a good pair at the centre of the play, though perhaps less subtle than the text required. Terence Crawford savages the stage as O’Brien, to me the best performance of the night.
The set is fascinating, with several nooks and rabbit holes to explore. The transformations were overwhelming, and an exciting spectacle in themselves. Sound effects and light blasts are perhaps overused, but striking nonetheless. Piercing tinnitus tones foreshadow huge apocalyptic booms at least once every scene.
What else is there to say? The choice to re-contextualise the play within the book-end of a contemporary book-club was clumsy. The beginning and ending lines of 1984 are some of the most artfully emphatic in all modern literature, and editorialising them was painfully unnecessary. Oh, also, a woman next to me with a blue streak through her hair was on her phone throughout almost the entire performance. I don’t know whether it was broken, or she just didn’t know how to work it, but the screen was at full brightness, and burning like a beacon through the dark of the theatre. Throughout the last act she returned to it every few minutes, tapping out messages to her friends or scrolling through Facebook. I flirted with telling her to put it away, but thought it might come off a bit intrusive.
I know this wasn’t strictly the play’s fault, but it was enormously distracting. In the last sequence, Winston was being pressured to a confession, and the set was put up in dazzling white blinds. “I could fly” O’Brien was roaring “if that is what the part says I could do.” Powerful stuff. Still, I couldn’t focus due to the burning LED blaze looming in the corner of my left eye. Eventually, I gave up on the show and just stared at her phone. She checked a Snapchat, then Instagram, then jumped back into a window where her friend had sent her a message. ‘The show is amazing’ she tapped out in reply. ‘It’s terrifying. Such great acting, so well done.’ Onstage, O’Brien had his boot on Winston’s head: ‘They’ll never rise against us’ he spat, ‘they’ll never look up from their screens long enough to realise what’s going on’. I was curiously reminded of something Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan had written about the relevance of Orwell’s vision.
Words by Harry Sanderson.