Reviewed by Amy Pay
If you look up “scary theatre” on a search engine, you’ll see that The Woman In Black is widely held as the most frightening show. Headlong’s adaptation of 1984, though, is by far one of the most disturbing pieces of theatre created during our lifetime
The success of the play is largely down to Orwell’s inventive dystopian novel on which it is based, adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, but it is Headlong’s treatment of Orwell’s ideas, their canny manipulation over temporal and physical space and their dramatization of the novel’s appendix that makes the adaptation a modern theatrical masterpiece.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) is commonly read during secondary education, but for the uninitiated, here’s a brief summary of the incredibly gripping tale: In the future year of 1984, protagonist Winston Smith is living in Airstrip One (formerly the UK). Everything is under surveillance by the Inner Party, a group that dictate the IngSoc system. They read people’s thoughts, watch their actions and record their conversations so they can act to eradicate difference and promote complete brainwashing of thoughts that run against the party’s agenda. The head of the party, Big Brother, is always watching. Winston works for the Party’s Ministry of Truth; his job entails deleting history, rewriting records and altering data files that give information about people so that those who rebel against the regime are wiped out. The narrative records Winston’s intellectual rebellion, a move that sees him incur forbidden romance, mistrust, imprisonment, torture and re-education by the thought police in Room 101.
The production’s use of modern technology to capture Orwell’s theme of surveillance imaginatively conveyed the way that the characters, and the audience, too, were never free of surveillance. It forced the audience to become voyeurs, stalking Julia and Winston in what they assume is a private bedroom; their romance, recollection of memories and spoken plotting against the Party were captured on a secret camera and shown via video stream on a giant screen above the stage. This same screen was also used to relay the Party’s manifesto, attacking the audience’s thoughts and controlling what they saw. As strobe lights flashed and grinding sounds burst through speakers, the culmination of effects was one almighty sensory punishment, one that impressed as much as it offended.
In addition to the mental discomfort passed from the characters to the audience, the torture sequence made for a nasty visual experience. Graphic scenes involving stage blood, the convincing mock-electrification of Winston (Mark Arends) and the deliberate destruction of sets caused audience members to jump, squeal and turn away. One highly disturbing scene featured masked gunmen scanning the unlit set and audience with torch-topped weapons.
Headlong’s interpretation of 1984 breaks tradition; the audience was lit, the actors spoke over each other and facing away from the audience and there was no interval. In doing so, it mirrors the tale’s disorientation of the past and future, showing how fiction from over sixty years ago is unsettlingly relevant in today’s plugged-in, hands-free, record-everything society. Unsurprisingly, there were noticeably fewer people than usual customarily checking their phones as they walked out of the theatre.