Thirty years on from the date ascribed by George Orwell to his terrifying dystopian vision we can congratulate ourselves that it didn’t come to pass as he imagined it. We can even joke about it, turning Big Brother into a “reality” television show, Room 101 into a jokey TV quiz game and watching both, ironically, on the slim screens that plaster our homes. But the recent fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations about surveillance may have given us pause for thought. Add to that the fact that many of us willingly surrender personal details on social media and can barely recall a past when the digital world and virtual reality did not exist, and things become more uncertain.
It’s that uncertainty that drives Headlong’s brilliant stage version of Nineteen Eighty-Four and it runs through even the structure itself. Rather than just tell the story, this show, written and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, creates a dynamic response that strips away complacency and plays on those creeping anxieties about trust, manipulation and freedom.
At the heart of the piece is still Winston Smith. Trapped in Orwell’s cold war-inflected totalitarian state, Smith (played with pale, nervy intensity by Mark Arends) plods miserably through his job turning “thought criminals” into “unpersons” by removing every trace of them in records and reports. He embarks on a rebellious love affair with Julia (Hara Yannas), mistakenly places trust in the smoothly plausible O’Brien (a deeply sinister Tim Dutton) and ends up in Room 101, betraying her and surrendering his own integrity to save his skin.
But the show, inspired by the appendix to Orwell’s novel, moves restlessly between Winston’s present and a future in which a book group discusses his diary. Safe in the assumption that The Party has long fallen, they assume that Smith never existed. But who would want them to think that? The jagged structure draws us into Smith’s increasingly tormented mind, but it also introduces unreliability into the narrative itself, replaying scenes with characters missing so we are not certain what we remember and which version of events we can trust. Are we rooting for him or spying on him? Even the torture scene, in a bleak white chamber (Chloe Lamford’s chilling design), blacks out at key moments, leaving our imaginations to do the work. As O’Brien knew, it is thought control that really matters – this disturbing staging asks us whether we even know how malleable we are.