Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Headlong Theatre’s latest adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four brings a powerfully compelling new dimension to Orwell’s classic. reviews

Photo courtesy of York Press

Photo courtesy of York Press

Rating: ★★★★★
Venue: York Theatre Royal

There is no greater fear than a life imprisoned by your own intelligence, where the thoughts you think are just as dangerous as the words you write, where every move is monitored, and where a person can cease to exist at the click of a button. Headlong’s adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four not only managed to bring these concepts to life, but, night after night, has managed to leave the entire audience, in stunned silence by the reaffirmation that society today may not be too-far-displaced from the world George Orwell envisioned.

With a running time of exactly 101 minutes, Matthew Spencer’s Winston has the audience captivated from the moment he puts pen to paper to his final spoken words. His relationship with Julia (Janine Harouni), both on stage and on screen is both compelling and horrifying to watch as the viewer becomes implicated in their fall. Even the sheer banality and repetition of some scenes adds conviction to life in an Orwellian world and is executed faultlessly by all of the characters, leaving the viewer questioning their own knowledge of events.

The piece generally takes place in what seems to be a projection of Winston’s office, home, and life spent hiding from the ‘telescreen’, all rolled into one, lending itself to the idea that Winston was never safe, perhaps just as visible to Big Brother in the bed he shared with Julia as he was doing his morning exercise drills in front of the ‘telescreen’. This is undoubtedly confirmed by the presence of a large television screen in the centre of stage, acting as surveillance for the acting which happens off stage (purportedly in secret).
“Big Brother is you watching.”

The Icke-Macmillan collaboration uses the novel’s appendix as its main inspiration, clearly intentionally written after the age of Big Brother, adding an entirely new dynamic to the drama. No longer are we following Winston as he gives voice and action to his memories, accusations, revelations and anxieties, but we also bear witness to a critical analysis session by a group from Winston’s future (the unborn) as they try to make sense of his ramblings.

This adaptation urges the audience to understand the existence of the novel’s appendix. The reality Winston lives is so fantastically nonsensical and otherworldly that we are sometimes able to disregard his life as a fantasy, too far-removed from our own reality. Maybe Winston never existed? At a time when personal data hacking and surveillance cameras are becoming the norm, however, it’s possible to draw unnerving similarities from the dystopian study group – people envisaged to represent life after Big Brother’s ‘fall’.

It really is no surprise that this critically-acclaimed piece is now on its second tour of the UK after a very successful round on the West End. From the flashing lights and dominating sound effects to the ever-evolving dynamics between each character, Headlong’s Nineteen Eighty-Four seems to have set a new standard for surreal theatre, one I very much doubt will meet its equal.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is guaranteed to leave even the die-hard Orwellian fans questioning everything about the novel, Big Brother, and modern-day surveillance. This is definitely not one to be missed.

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