When a work of fiction becomes so iconic a cultural “classic” that it’s known and understood by people who have never read it, it’s unsurprising that a few inaccuracies creep in. Such is the case with George Orwell’s dystopian novel
A curiously timeless work, which builds on the simple repeating of choreography and conversations, drawing meaning from both their repetition and the smallest changes which alter everything.
Possibly the most common assumption is that Orwell set his story in the-then futuristic — and now three decades past — year of 1984. In fact, his nominal hero Winston Smith is uncertain of when exactly he’s committing the “thought crime” of writing a diary – “It was never possible nowadays to pin down any date within a year or two” – while the novel’s often ignored appendix on “The Principles of Newspeak” suggests (at least to some) that even the year 2050 might actually be in the narrative’s “past”.
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s 2013 stage adaption of Orwell’s novel, originally a co-production between the Headlong theatre company, Nottingham Playhouse and the Almeida Theatre, and now touring the UK, makes much of being the first adaptation to incorporate the appendix. So from the start, it deliberately plays with the idea of the book as “a vision of the future, no matter when it’s read”, with the majority of the cast playing not just characters in the novel but also members of some book club considering the story of Winston Smith in an undetermined future.
The result is a curiously timeless work, which builds on the simple repeating of choreography and conversations, drawing meaning from both their repetition and the smallest changes which alter everything. Time is itself somewhat truncated and re-edited, just as the ruling Party attempts to edit and reduce history and language; yesterday, today and tomorrow all seem to slip and slide, and the audience holds on to the snatches of the children’s rhyme of Oranges and Lemons which are heard frequently throughout the drama.
This 1984 is no more an easy watch than Orwell’s book is an easy read — and I don’t just mean because of the frequent flares of bright lights at the audience which accompany some necessary black-outs on stage. This adaptation rightly questions truth and fact, the nature of surveillance (with the audience all too obviously cast in the role of voyeurs), and makes us emotionally complicit in the bespoke physical and mental torture Smith — played with slowly building sympathy by Matthew Spencer — encounters in the infamous Room 101, at the hands of the rock-faced Tim Dutton as Big Brother's helper O’Brien.
Over the years, some snobbish critics have refuted the idea that, with Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell wrote a Science Fiction novel. This adept and thoughtful stage adaptation proves once and for all that he did: for like all the best SF, it creates a world to highlight and make us think about our own, and not least to question complacencies about our own freedoms and the merits of those people and organisations who increasingly hold power over us in our technological and interconnected world.