Headlong’s production of 1984 begins with a book club discussing the various clichés and themes we associate with George Orwell’s influential story – one about a dystopian future, a fascist regime controlled by Big Brother and an individual who hoped to overcome it all. To some, the opening sequence might be alienating but for someone new to 1984 this recognizable group and discussion is comforting. It ushers us gently towards the famous text. However, the book club resuming at the very end of the production exposes the cozy set-up as a chilling extension of the novel. As with everything within 1984, nothing is as it may seem.
This condensed 90-minute adaptation is highly stylized and extremely technical. Many scenes are repeated or overlaid with other scenes, which we have seen or which are to come. The concoction of past, future and present all at once illustrates the passing of time as well as the effectiveness of the system and how it can distort memory and imagination. The repeating and remixing of scenes give the audience a taste of the Oceanian rule. The sound design adds to this experience with its din of drone sounds, static and shrill electronic bleeps. The production also utilizes live video streaming technology and this works not only thematically, because of the ideas over surveillance, but also artistically. It adds another aesthetic layer to the piece, creating a multimedia, multi-sensory panorama.
Those reappearing and overlapping scenes also serve to highlight the rigour of the actors, able to recreate moments with brilliant exactitude. Mark Arends’ portrayal of Winston was absolutely compelling, he was played tormented and disturbed from the off. Arends gave a harrowing performance in the Room 101 sequence up until Winston’s excruciating capitulation. Tim Dutton’s O’Brien also stood out, as he transforms masterfully from trustworthy confidante to threatening torturer.
The pace is spot on, the world of Oceania is composed gradually and changes gear with the budding romance with Julia, then their introduction to the Brotherhood. Finally, an extremely dramatic scene change deconstructs the whole of what we have seen on stage, paralleling the collapse of Winston and Julia’s entire world. This sequence is an all-encompassing, hellish experience. I watched eyes wide and biting my lip, it is an utterly striking coup de theatre.
A text claimed both by the left and by the right, which can be seen to satirise any government or ruling power, 1984 chimes with so much of what we know and experience, and with many of our fears and uncertainties. If you have never read the book or seen an adaptation then you should definitely be introduced to it with Headlong’s arresting take on the novel. If you have read or seen any kind of adaptation, then I can bet you that this will top it.