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Review: 1984 (Headlong Theatre)

 Cheltenham Everyman Theatre

“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s.”

In this new adaptation of 1984 created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, Headlong’s innovative production is a revelation to its audience in showing the relevance of George Orwell’s novel even six decades after it was first published.

Winston Smith, also known as Comrade 6079, and played by Matthew Spencer, is the protagonist of this exemplary political dystopia. Big Brother is watching you… in a story that asks for empathy but needs none, and a character that yearns for your sympathy.

Running at just under two hours with no interval, the audience become a part of this spectacle, with feelings of the inability to escape the inevitable psychological horror happening on stage. This play is not for the fainthearted; much like Orwell’s fiction when it was first written, this adaptation is bold, unconventional and thought-provoking in its visual storytelling.

And that is precisely what we as the audience are watching – a story. A story that has so far stood the test of time, and theatrically retold in such a way that the spectator may become just as bewildered and bemused as Winston Smith, thought criminal.

Upon entering the theatre, there was a distinct murmur emanating from the eager audience, and an ever-present non-diegetic drone broadcast throughout the auditorium, an unnerving quality adding to the uncomfortable anticipation. Disorientation proves to be a key theme in Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation, working with lighting and sound designers, respectively Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons, assaulting the senses and stunning the audience right from the curtain being raised. Scene transitions and mid-scene changes were enacted through brief moments of darkness following a blinding flash of light distorting the spectators’ retinas, each time this happened it was over almost as soon as it had begun and the audience are then desperately scanning the scene to decipher what, if anything, even the most minor of details, has changed.

Chloe Lamford’s set design brilliantly enabled Tim Reid’s multimedia and video projection to become another part of the scenery in its own right; part of the reality on stage; part of the unrelenting presence of Big Brother; part of the storytelling. A three-dimensional room has also been constructed off-stage, and only present to the audience when the interior of this room is projected onto the overhead video screens, giving the impression of hidden cameras positioned everywhere. The set is more versatile than perhaps initially perceived, but to say anymore here would reduce the impact of Headlong Theatre’s imaginative spectacle if you yourself should go see this production.

Though the play is punctuated with abrupt scene changes there is a defined flow to the military movement on stage. An ensemble of eight cast members, portrayed by Matthew Spencer, Tim Dutton, Steven Elder, Andre Flynn, Janine Harouni, Ben Porter, George Potts and Mandi Symonds, the majority of whom are multi-rolling and serving multiple purposes, with an abundance of repeated scenes in the conformed environment of the story. This proves most effective at significant plot points where the dramatic happenings on stage employs ‘misdirection’ with the amount of movement that occurs, amazing the audience at the moment of revelation.

Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation most notably takes Winston’s story beyond that of Orwell’s novel. The audience become involved with the play; to the extent where we represent the eternal observer that is Big Brother, but we also share in the telling of this fiction as an outsider, analysing the rebellion of Comrade 6079 in the twenty-first century.

Headlong Theatre’s production of 1984 was adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, in association with the Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre, and is touring the UK until the end of October 2014. TM

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