In this world of growing nationalism, "alternative facts" and hugely increased possibility of surveillance through digital means, the themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four have never been more relevant. Jonathan Holloway's production of Orwell's dystopian classic riffs on the potential connections to our current era without fully diving into them. It is in a version of the modern world, with screens and speakers lining the stage in all directions, but there is a sense of abstraction which is retained.
The acting and production values were strong throughout and the overall vision was complete. Rochi Rampal, who played the renegade Julia, stood out, with her furtive passion bubbling below the surface of her actions. Angela Clerkin as the back-stabbing O'Brien also gave a performance with a clear vision, as the face of Big Brother and its cold, hard, brutal system. Her captivating delivery was chilling in its pretence of warmth.
The site-specific production makes full use of the cold, stark setting of the shiny maths institute. The women's shoes click through the echoey halls and the lighting is impersonal and business-like. This made the love scenes (which were quite graphic, involving full nudity) all the more awkward in their sharp contrast to the setting. This was clever; the pervasive nature of Big Brother is never clearer than when it has reached human interaction in this way, making it feel out of place and wrong. What is more, the audience watched the whole thing on a screen as it happened live at the end of a nearby corridor. There was a palpable sense of embarrassment which came from the voyeurism we were being coerced into.
The many screens being always on, playing the livestream of the cameras held by member of the cast, put clearly the notion that the characters were constantly being watched. However it also meant that the iconic moment in the book when Winston and Julia get caught in their love-den attic was lost because we could see that the man had been filming the whole time. The sense of oppression which came from Big Brother could never be forgotten, which perhaps made it paradoxically less hard-hitting.
Furthermore, the torture scenes were incredibly hard to watch and in general, the play had more of an impact through its physical violence than through its psychological effect, unlike the book. Torture onstage tends to drown out anything else: it gave me a visceral reaction, which while signalling that the play had achieved an impressive suspension of my disbelief, left little room for enlightenment. It begs the question: what is the gain of transferring such a book to the stage? It arguably has more of a political impact as a book; what small political impact it had onstage was lost by the impact of the violence (for me at least).
That said, the relevance of the play is undeniable. In particular, the famous scenes involving O'Brien's insistence that '2 + 2 = 5' resonated in the light of the recent surge in distrust of facts coming from the political establishment both in this country and across the sea. A reminder of how people with power will not stop at the barrier of truth can only be a good thing, no matter how difficult it is to watch.