Many will know George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian classic which offers us an almost imaginable world in which individuals are continually watched under the cold eye of Big Brother, in which fact is only fact if the Ministry says it is so, and where children will condemn their parents and take pleasure in public death. Sometimes it is a world which seems very forward, yet simultaneously, very backwards.
I imagined it to be a difficult task to translate such a text into a successful stage production, however, the interpretation by co-directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s immerses the audience in the horror of Winston’s continual instability with a fast paced, clever, visceral piece.
Sam Crane, who takes on the lead role of Winston Smith, portrays a compelling character. Though more attractive than the less desirable Winston I had envisaged in Orwell’s original text, his continually wavering and unsteady voice unhinges him and gives the impression that he had been crumbling under the pressure of Big Brother long before the play begins. I therefore forgave and omitted his West-End good looks and concentrated more on his urgent struggle.
Performances across the board were generally very good; O’Brian is clinical, though this did mean that I occasionally switched off to him; Julia, the object of Winston’s love and, thus, Sexcrimes, is passionate and almost certainly a little deranged if her laugh is of any indication. Each character, when under the eye of Big Brother, had a robotic, stylised motion. That style took a little getting used to, and maybe the people of Winston’s world didn’t walk around in stiff straight lines, but it became like a further language in which the play makes its audience aware that, with every step, every individual is watched, monitored, controlled.
The opening sequence kicks off with a narrative voice-over which introduces the play in a beautifully eerie, audio-book tone. Winston is trying to write, his efforts are caught on camera for the audience to see above the stage, another reminder of continual surveillance, and also, the audience’s surveillance of Winston. Further details of set design and second perfect co-ordination between action on stage and the sound team, is a wonder to witness; sharp sounds, flashes, and that ringing-din that gives the feeling of coming round after being hit on the head, thrusts the audience into the action. The change between the initial, familiar, stage set up, to the stark, tall, white space of Room 101 was seamlessly done. It provided the perfect space for the horrific and tense interrogation. Some may find it gruesome, indeed, I saw an occasionally ducked head a few seats in front of me, but I thought it was brilliantly handled, where those black flashes, in which time jumps and pain occurs, were used wisely.
This Headlong production saw the Orwellian world brilliantly translated onto the West End Stage and, after it closes this weekend, will see similar successes with the nationwide tour.