The play – which opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre this week – begins innocently enough.
Members of a bookclub meet in an unremarkable timber-clad reading room to discuss a fascinating text.
Ominous figures appear and disappear through fogged windows; reality begins to fracture into Orwell’s classic totalitarian dystopia, where the state – in the person of Big Brother – is always watching, policing thought, eliminating subversives and altering history retrospectively.
The society under The Party is insane, servile citizens must believe impossible lies, and a mutilated language is slowly killing the vocabulary of critical thought and dissent.
Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, removing “unpersons” from all written record as if they never existed.
Yet he hates Big Brother – and a stranger, Julia, has spotted it. Risking everything, they fall in love, and find a temporary oasis in the territory of a vast, poorer, freer underclass.
But they know their capture is inevitable.
Urusula Mills’ performance as Julia is oddly wooden at times: we are as confused as Winston about whether her feelings are genuine – but perhaps that’s the point.
A barely-audible mosquito-pitch tone is the unsettling warning of what’s to come. In stilted crescendo – punctuated by very, very loud white noise, or a piercing gunshot – the action climbs from drab mediocrity to utter horror.
The setting is physically torn apart in an explosion of heavily armed police, flashing lights and deafening sound to reveal a vast expanse of nothingness. Massive walls descend, shrinking Winston to miniature.
And we bear witness to the forced, harrowing destruction of Winston’s entire personhood.
Unwilling to risk a single viewer not feeling the terror of Orwell’s nightmare vision of the future (“imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”), British directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan elect to torture their audience.
Lighting designer Natasha Chivers and sound designer Tom Gibbons dazzle and terrorise with near-intolerable extremes of each medium during Winston’s annihilation. It’s hugely uncomfortable, physically.
Along with an agonising performance from Tom Conroy as Winston – and a powerful turn by Terence Crawford as O’Brien – the result is a crushing experience.
Icke and Macmillan’s attempts to hammer the modern-day relevance of Orwell’s dystopia using a sub-plot outside of, but connected to, the main story feels contrived in parts; 1984’s relevance to our age of mass-surveillance and callous political lies is all too self-evident. Nonetheless, allusions to a future in which we knew the lessons of an essential book but failed to heed them strike a disturbing chord.
Overall, this is a merciless, brilliant production that does justice to the novel.
It leaves you just as devastated, but newly armed, as if you had just closed the book.
Created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan for Britain’s Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre companies, 1984 is being presented in Australia by Ambassador Theatre Group, GWB Entertainment and the State Theatre Company of SA. Performances continue at Her Majesty’s Theatre until May 27 and will be followed by a national tour.