George Orwell’s masterpiece and classic socio-political statement novel is no doubt one of the most challenging pieces of literary fiction to be adapted to stage. A collaboration between Headlong Theatre and the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company, this really was an ambitious project to take on board.
What prompted me most to go and see this production was curiosity: exactly how would the director take this groundbreaking tomb of a novel, laden with ideology and metaphor, and transform it into an hour and a half of theatrical performance?
The play opened with a group of scholars gathered round a table on the stage, discussing the book laid before them: Winston Smith’s diary. This, in itself, posed infinite possibilities, as these academics could be discussing the actual diary from the book itself as a real historical artefact, or Orwell’s work of fiction as a text. Either way, this was a fantastic set-up for a brilliant adaptation, and my imagination was going wild. As it turned out, these characters had in their possession Winston’s ‘real’ diary, and were debating whether it was in fact a true historical relic or a piece of clever propaganda.
Things continued down this interesting path, as it was revealed that one of the group on stage was in fact Winston himself. Again, here were a whole host of options open to the director: is this really Winston in the here and now? Is this some sort of parallel universe, and is Winston trapped in a cycle of memory loss? Could this be happening in the year of the novel’s title, and could Winston have lost his mind? All of the above ideas sprang into my imagination as I prepared myself for a psychological adventure based on the big ideas from the novel.
But my excitement was short-lived, as unfortunately after this, the narrative lost its way and the play became a muddled mess. From an initial set up which promised possible insanity, potential time travel and an uncanny example of deja vu,(playing out in a brilliantly executed and repeated scene in a canteen) the play descended into a poor, and meagre representation of some of the key events of the novel. An hour and a half was never going to be long enough to tell the story of Winston Smith, let alone explore and demonstrate the world of Big Brother, Newspeak and constant government surveillance rife within the pages of the novel.
The result was a dull, lifeless and disjointed play, with huge gaps in the storytelling, as well as a total lack of character development. Huge, important ideas from the novel were barely touched upon, and as for the agitated, paranoid tone of the novel, this was completely amiss. The central characters, Winston and Julia, left the audience cold and unconcerned as the actors failed to engage us emotionally in their plight, and the lack of depth in the script caused the unveiling of room 101 to be less than nightmarish. One positive thin must be said for the lighting arrangements, as the brilliant white light of room 101 did strike the audience unawares and create an uncomfortable viewing experience, much like that endured by Winston himself.
The initial set up of this production had so much potential, as there were so many original and innovative ways the team could have dealt with the ideas of the novel as well as the potential fall out from such a regime. The idea of a future where Big Brother’s government is impossible to imagine, and debated amongst scholars is an inspired way to begin exploring the classic in a whole new light, but this was sadly neglected after only a few minutes of thought provoking action. I think the creative team behind this production really missed a golden opportunity to put a much anticipated original spin on a classic, and what a shame this was.
1984 runs at the Playhouse until 2 November 2013.