“1984” at the Playhouse Theatre

After a successful tour and sell-out run at the Almeida, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 has arrived in the West End, opening last night at the Playhouse Theatre. It’s a slick affair, all 101 uninterrupted minutes of it, right down to the marketing – rave reviews outside are censored and tickets are on sale for £19.84.

This truly superb adaptation of a classic text is faithful to the original, full of insight and presents a clear interpretation for us to consider. Icke and Macmillan prioritise the appendix to the novel, The Principles of Newspeak, to highlight the text’s status as an historic document read by people in the future.

The show starts with a kind of book club. Anachronistically, our hero (I use the term unreservedly), the ‘author’ Winston Smith, is present and Big Brother looms large. Those discussing the book segue into characters from the story. Orwell has so many ideas, important ones but often abstract, so to extract the drama needed to create a gripping play is an accomplishment. Atmosphere rather than plot is the key and this high-tech production delivers. The set full of surprises, live video work, superb sound and lighting design make this a visceral experience. You’ll want to calm down in a quiet room afterwards.

Not Room 101 of course. The location where the tyrannical regime tortures dissenters is our final destination. From the moment Winston becomes a ‘thought criminal’ to his capture, the play is appropriately, uncomfortably, powerful and not for the squeamish. The way Big Brother manipulates Winston’s fears is both moving and as powerful as Orwell intended it to be. It’s also wonderfully theatrical – cleverly engaging the audience.

The performances are smooth. Sam Crane plays Smith as confused and petrified from the start (well before any mention of rats) and escalates his performance into something remarkable. His love interest is played by Hara Yannas, who perfectly embodies a distinct kind of rebelliousness. And the rest of the ensemble, including a spookily commanding villain in Tim Dutton’s O’Brien, is well drilled. Icke and Macmillan, who shared the direction, evidently make a superb team.

Until 23 August 2014

www.atgticket.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 9 May 2014 for The London Magazine

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