Arguably one of the most important books of the 20th Century, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a fascinating prophecy of realpolitik in the modern world.

Any adaptation of a literary classic to another medium has to overcome the same obstacles that others have in the past; namely the reason a book is a classic is precisely because of its literary conventions. Adapting a literary source is liable to change aspects of the narrative as a whole and usually one or more of its idiosyncratic facets are lost.

Headlong Theatre Company have (with one could say Orwellian foresight!) sidestepped this issue by deconstructing the thematically-rich literary source, and in doing so, not only solved the conundrum of compressing information versus satisfying drama, they have 'found' their own distinctive voice as well.

Instead of just having the events that transpired in the book, the play jumps back and forth between a reading group that appraises Winston Smith's (Matthew Spencer) diary and the main narrative. Through Winston or as his alter ego as a reader, we see and hear clues of another reality behind the here and now – not unlike the predicament of Sam Tyler in the BBC series Life On Mars. This questioning of 'facts' and the retroactive rewriting of history plays up to the book's theme of subjective truth versus the dogma of the state.

Smith's cycle of doubt and distrust continues until Julia (Janine Harouni) – one of the members of the Junior Anti-Sex League – enters his life. From that point onwards, their relationship puts them in the gravest of danger, as their affair – intimacy between two people that is not sanctioned by the state – is the ultimate act of political rebellion.

The stage design by Chloe Lamford and lighting by Natasha Chivers – along with sound by Tim Gibbons and video by Tim Reid – complements the production perfectly, emphasising paranoia, alienation and the intrusive, vitriolic nature of Big Brother’s propaganda.

Spencer and Harouni are riveting to watch, as you would expect, but all the actors perform with aplomb. As Constantin Stanislavski once remarked. "There are no small parts, only small actors." Everyone contributes in their subtle, understated way to the oppressive vibe of the play’s dystopian setting.

In a world where compassion is scorned and individual liberties are being eroded away by state, Headlong’s production of Orwell is frighteningly relevant – an uncomfortable reflection of the spirit of the age and a warning to where society is heading, if left unchecked.

© Michael Davis

1984 runs at the Playhouse Theatre until 5 September 2015



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