For a novel written in 1949, it is remarkable how much of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 has seeped into our consciousness. Not just in the phrases we have adopted – Big Brother, thought crime, Room 101, double speak – but also in the world it depicts, of constant surveillance, of the all-controlling state, of the erosion of individual liberties. From Wikileaks to Edward Snowden, David Miranda’s detention even to Paul Dacre’s indignation, the consequences of going up against the establishment, in whatever form, are never far from the headlines and it is clear that Headlong’s audacious re-interpretation of 1984 is an apposite choice.
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation takes an unusual starting point – the epilogue-like Appendix which offers a whole new level of complication to the narrative of the novel – and uses it to present a dual layer of storytelling. Winston Smith’s trials at the hands of Big Brother as he rebels against the totalitarian state for whom he works are contextualised by a futuristic scenario in which a book group are reading about the trials of Winston Smith. We slide between the two timeframes – as Winston thinks a thought, the book group discuss it – each inextricably linked with the other as we watch this single man, this tiny act of rebellion, being obliterated.
It’s a persuasive retelling of the story, building slowly to a viscerally shocking final section which as a disturbingly compelling power. The interrogation of the future on the past is cleverly done, throwing into question received wisdoms and lazy assumption. And the use of live video to eavesdrop on Winston as he runs away with lover Julia to a place they think is free from CCTV coerces the audience into an active collaboration with the Thought Police themselves. Icke and Mcmillan revel in these small but effective touches – the echoes of Oranges and Lemons in unexpected places, the eerie presence of a young girl (played by Richmond local Georgie Raggett) keeping us all on our toes.
Anything this densely-layered presents its challenges though and for those unfamiliar with the novel (and let’s face it, no matter how high it ranks on best-ever lists, there’ll be a considerable number) its languorous repetitiveness in the first half may seem like something to endure. But the production does sharpen up as the interlocking pieces shift and settle and shift again to keep both Winston – an increasingly broken performance from the excellent Mark Arends – and the audience thoroughly disorientated and disturbed.