What this revival lacks unfortunately is the glue of the performances that is required to add the energy and truth to make us really care.
The idea that we are being watched and manipulated is as rife today as it probably was during Communism – and this entrenched believability can make the extremities of Orwell's story seem only two dangerous steps away from our own lives. So it is disappointing that in this second West End revival of Robert Icke and David Macmillan's version, any required believability from the performances on stage is sorely lacking – in what seems to be a "by numbers" reblocking of what was probably a strong and exciting production in earlier iterations.
This was my first experience of this piece which has gained many plaudits since it began in 2013 – and it is clear that the original idea was strong. Beginning and ending with what seems to be a book club dissecting the 'memory book' that is 1984, it quickly demonstrates the power one can have when in control of language and memory – examining the words of the book (many of which have come full circle and seem odd that they should seem odd, when hearing them today – Big Brother, Room 101 and 'unpersoning'; Orwell was nothing if not foretelling), all whilst confusingly performing in this play of the book. It cleverly plays against our want for narrative by juxtaposing a set that exudes 'non-specific reality' (and later explodes into Room 101 to shake our foundations of what is real), with choreographed repeated movements and phrases – working together to jolt all sense of linear time and place. There's no doubt that the original design and direction were adept in visually creating a familiar and yet terrifying world.
The problem is that the entirely new cast in this production seem to have been dropped into this pre-ordained world rather than having been given a chance to truly inhabit it or create their own sense of believable characterisation that could add to the tried and tested visual format. True empathy comes from feeling that the events taking place – whilst severe – are really happening to real people. Or at least, could be. Here, the panic and confusion of our hero Winston Smith (Andrew Gower's West End debut) begins at “confused breathlessness” and never goes up or down a gear from the first line – surprisingly engendering the final, gory scenes of his torture as little more than watching blood capsules cover an actor's face (and I'm squeamish so was expecting to have to look away rather than giggle). Whilst Angus Wright's interpretation of the malice inherent by the confidence in his own beliefs as the 'face' of Big Brother, O'Brien (from being a mysteriously controlling voiceover, to Winston's supposed confidante, to abusive and supposedly terrifying torturer) offers little more than a laboriously droning delivery that understates any terror to so large an extent that it creates an air of tedium rather than threat.
As long as we retain the intelligence to challenge everything, 1984 will always be a powerful piece. This production takes on that challenge by being an interestingly experimental piece of design, lighting and sound (with credit to Chloe Lamford, Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons). And the use of video (by Tim Reid) to create both the idea of an 'unsafe safe' room and give us a stalking-like overview of the 'memory book' being written is chilling in its cleverness. What this revival lacks unfortunately is the glue of the performances that is required to add the energy and truth to make us really care. It may really be set in 'any time' but when it feels like the actors are only trying to replicate previous over-blocked moves rather than bring blood to their characters (other than the dye we see splashing about), the overall impact is that it seems unbelievable fantasy rather than recognisable surreality.