1984 The Play: London Theatrical Tour 2016 Part 6 of 6
1984: The Should-be Inventive Modern Play
This is the last play and blog review from my London Theatrical Tour of 2016. And as I walked into the Playhouse Theatre that last night in London, I was hoping we would go out with a bang. We have seen some amazing theatre this trip, and also some just plain good theatre here in London. A mixed bag as always, and as was the case last year, the best were surprises and last minute purchases. Blue/Orange (a last minute purchase) and Unreachable (a unknown entity and a spontaneous purchase) were my unexpected favorites (much like last year’s Rules For Living at the National, The Audience with Kristen Scott Thomas, and the hilarious The Play That Went Wrong). Funny Girl was a big solid hit, as was Three Penny Opera just like last year’s Gypsy with Imelda Staunton . Romeo and Juliet was a bit of a disappointment, similarly to last year’s classic Hay Fever. And this summer’s 1984 was somewhere in between.
Published in 1949, George Orwell’s futuristic dystopian sci-fi warning wrapped in a novel has been a classic ever since, with its bleak telling of a totalitarian world engulfed in official deception, secret surveillance and an unrelenting manipulation of recorded history for the sole purpose of power and control by the ominous Big Brother. Nothing is private and everything is watched, with the statewide unsaid warning: be careful if you stray.
I had heard great things about this adaptation from my English friends. It had had a sold-out run the previous year and was returning to London for a second go after a successful tour. I was intrigued. I had read the novel, probably decades ago, and although a few of the terms/phrases that had gained traction in our culture, ‘thoughtcrime’, ‘Newspeak’, and doublethink’, I remembered little else beyond the basic concept. Which is a blessing I would add, because it seems the more you remembered, the more disappointing this production was. Or so I am told.
The adaptation starts out incredibly provocative and engaging, playing with time frames and abstractionisms. There seems to be a reading group gathered in the far off future from the universe of their 1984, discussing the veracity of the found diary (or is it propaganda literature?). Sitting along side them is our hero, Andrew Gower’s nervy Winston Smith, who back in Orwell’s 1984, wrote this obscure text. We flip back and forth from these time frames as he begins to gather up the courage to rebel in his own personal and political way against government control and subjugation of the people. It’s as confusing to us as the surroundings and the world are to Winston. Until Catrin Stewart’s Julia comes into the room and the narrative, bringing Winston’s thirst for more to the forefront. A large television screen gives us a glimpse of the control that Big Brother enforces on the civilians of this society and gives us the feeling of impending doom. It’s all a fantastic head trip as we play with the 1949 ideas of a future 1984 from a vantage point of 2016 and current political history in the making; the rise of the hideous fascist Trump, but also from an alternative universe book club from the year 2050 (utilizing the appendix from the novel). It’s as relevant and disturbing as ever, and powerfully and uniquely done using all kinds of theatrical tricks that the directors and design team could come up in order to give a fresh perspective on the story.
Until the second part, when the story that takes us to the infamous ‘Room 101’. And from this point in, the disturbing becomes torturous. And not in the way this inventive staging has feed us so far. The scenes are more straight forward and difficult to watch as the mind control and torture of Wallace moves towards the obvious outcome. I will say it kept me fully engaged in a horrific sense, but I think I was hoping for the same level or abstract creativity that part one had given us. But it felt like Writer/directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan ran out of ideas and just gave us straight forward discomfort as the way to keep us tuned in.
It’s not exactly how I wanted to end my London Theatrical Tour. I left that theatre disturbed, which I guess was the ultimate point, but not tingling with the electricity of inventive theatre. The play, Unreachable, has that distinction, even without the pedigree of a classic book and grander-themed story. It was, for me, what theatre is meant to be.