Henry IV part 1, Act 5, Scene 1
Having finally got myself a new laptop and starting on a new trying-to-see-as-much-theatre-as-possible spree, it’s finally time to resurrect Mingled Yarns and start helping you plebs sound vaguely intellectual and cultured at dinner parties once more (I say that in the most loving way possible).
In fact, if you’re looking for that kind of impressively political and literary, yet actually very easy to enjoy play, you can’t really go wrong with ‘1984’, Headlong‘s new production which transferred to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre after a sold-out run at the Almeida Theatre and a 2014 Olivier Award nomination.
First of all I should say, if you haven’t read ‘1984’ by George Orwell, please please read it before. As engrossing as this production is, the book is even better, I promise you. Also this review might be a little more understandable, as I’m going to be referring back to the differences between the two quite frequently.
The production itself is well-acted; I especially liked Mathew Spencer as Symes who captured the nervous energy of the society and who made the terrible concept of ‘Newspeak’ seem almost inevitable and coherent. Tim Dutton as O’Brien was also the perfect human face to Big Brother; seemingly kind but steely underneath.
Personally I felt that Winston (played by Sam Crane), the protagonist of the story, whilst acted believably and well, was a cast a little too young. I’ve always pictured him in his forties, a bit battered, wrinkled and worn, not your natural revolutionary. The trouble with him being in his late twenties/early thirties is that his actions became very idealistic; he was set apart from everyone else right from the start of the play (revolution ‘lay in his way’ like in the titular quote; it was his natural destiny whenever he lived), rather than being a normal everyday citizen who just happens to become disillusioned with the society he has previously accepted unquestioningly after a chance incident.
This also had an effect on the relationship between Winston and Julia; to me, in the book this is purely a matter of rebelling against the system not of any true feelings. In this production, however, it seemed to mean and be a lot more than that. Maybe I’m misremembering the book, but I thought it implied had the two met under different circumstances, they would never have given each other a second glance. They are two completely separate characters who come together only to take down Big Brother in any way possible.
The set itself was very clever, particularly the way Julia and Winston’s time in the ‘safe’ apartment was shown entirely through videos, which (*Spoilers!*) showed how unable anyone was to escape from the eyes of the Ministry of Love and Big Brother. The section where the apartment is raided and they are taken away was brilliant; the wall falling in, and the apartment being revealed as a TV show style set – oh, it was just everything I wanted it to be.
The torture scene in Room 101 was likewise incredibly powerful – not as bloody as I had anticipated, although brutal in its clinical efficiency, building up to the final, awful cruelty. Ugh those rats! By the end it was hard not to run on stage and force the cage from his mouth. I do wonder if that has ever happened…. I think the whole audience was just willing, urging Winston to betray Julia, which of course afterwards made us feel co-betrayers, also responsible for allowing the regime to continue, for surrendering, for preferring survival over revolution and principles.
The concept of ‘ooh look we could actually be living in 1984 now!’ was a bit labored for me. I get that it’s a very clever idea, something I would definitely enjoy studying and analysing in a class (woohoo English nerd time), but not one that necessarily translated that well on stage. It meant the production started off slowly and pretty confusingly; I understand that human nature repeats itself, I don’t need to be shown that a hundred times. However, the pace quickened as they started to focus more on the main story and by the end the references were fleeting but poignant. And I did love that Winston began his diary at the start by writing that day’s date – always exciting when you feel involved in some way!
To end on a positive, the two minutes of hate were absolutely brilliantly terrifying. To have seven actors facing you and shouting and screaming and yelling and hurling insults and throwing chairs and hitting you over the head with a barrage of passionate hate was the most well-conceived, powerfully acted, chilling part of the entire play.
The production on the whole is exciting and thrilling, but occasionally a little too clever for its own good. Although looking back on this review it seems like there were many faults, these weren’t so noticeable it prevented me from enjoying the play. It builds pace and the second half is much the better one. Go and see it – but definitely read the book first if you don’t want to get lost (and just because it’s one of the best and most easily enjoyed classics in English Literature).
‘1984’ at Playhouse Theatre, West End (transfer from Almeida Theatre): 4/5 stars