By Lauren McGrath
There’s a scene repeated again and again in the London-based Headlong’s adaptation of 1984 that made an old story resonate with a new audience and secured it’s place in the relevancy of 2016. A father sits at a table alongside his comrades, recounting a story about how his 7-year-old’s scouting troop came across an enemy of the nation on a hiking trip. The detail that gave the criminal away? He was wearing funny shoes. He was probably a foreigner. The audience laughs, Trump fatigue at the forefront of their minds. “Pretty smart for a 7-year-old,” remarks the proud papa.
Shakespeare Theatre Company is currently playing host to Headlong and their cast of angry comrades with 1984, an adaptation of the original text that takes questions raised by George Orwell’s appendix and weaves them into the dystopian tale of constant surveillance. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan of Headlong have created a multimedia production of the story that leaves the viewer deeply unsettled and brings fresh air to an old story. Weaving together the use of both stage and screen, 1984 is a disturbing production that skirts on the edge of being overwhelming, and displays the absolute terror of the Orwellian future in a way that film or text alone cannot accomplish. Most notably, much of the action in the play happens backstage, on a small set loaded with cameras that project the action back onto the stage in real-time. At first, I wondered if these were simply films that had been pre-recorded during the show, but when it becomes obvious that the video feed is being shown to us right now, the feeling of being a voyeur is jolting.
The frustrations that myself, and many in my generation have with the story of 1984, are raised in the discussion of some kind of futuristic book club also played by the ensemble, who open the play by discussing the purpose of the story at length. The Orwellian dystopian future has been claimed in our culture by both an anti-surveillance left and a hand-wringing right who are dramatic in their paranoia over “political correctness” and the Thought Police. Who does 1984 belong to, and is it merely a tale of horror that offers no solution? “You’re seeing yourself reflected in it because it’s opaque. It’s a mirror. Every age sees itself reflected,” repeats the ensemble.
Matthew Spencer as Winston and Hara Yannas’ Julia are standout characters whose forms of rebellion complement one another beautifully. Julia is fearless and open mouthed with her laughter over Big Brother, convinced that individual change and acts of undermining the party are enough to qualify as revolution. Yannas is sexual yet almost childish in her portrayal of the female protagonist, as she flounces around in her red dress found in the back of an antique shop like a kid playing dress up- yet, playing dress up is really all she is doing. Spencer’s Winston is nervous and shoots looks of horror around the set more so than anger as bizarre events unfold around him, and he grasps the weight of the situation in a way that pushes him towards wanting to dismantle entire systems. When he tells Julia that she’s only a rebel “from the waist down,” his comments on her reclamation of sexuality is strangely reminiscent of the Men’s Rights Activists we love to parody so much, but in his slut shaming, he holds a valid point.
1984’s most dazzling element is also it’s greatest weakness. The sound effects, strobe lights, and violent, constant scene changes quickly turn into a jump-scare for audience members. Instead of directing focus to dialogue and characterization, it’s easy to spend long moments tensing for the next ear-ringing noises and flashes of light that are beamed directly into the faces of viewers. The first few times are surprising, but after a certain point, it feels like being beaten of the head with a is this raw enough yet approach to special effects. The acting is unsettling enough without sensory overload that becomes distracting. During Winston’s interrogation by party leaders in the Ministry of Love, a sparse and deconstructed set that bears no resemblance to the fifties-era wood paneling we’d seen up until that point, the show skirts dangerously close to being torture porn. When watching a violent and bloody film, audiences are allowed, expected even, to react with their voices, however, grimacing and expressing disgust during a live production is obviously looked down upon. I’m sure that there is some intent in this, but watching teeth being yanked and blood being spilled struck me as a larger attempt at being edgy as opposed to really saying something other than “isn’t torture the worst?”
1984 is an intelligent read of a novel published generations ago that didn’t quite come true, but always holds the potential as being a reflection of the unknown future. The adaptation exploration of why 1984 exists, or for that matter, Winston’s entire diary, prevents stagnation of the story and turns a deeply upsetting novel into an unpredictable experience. It’s a perfect show for those who want to continue to claim Orwell’s text as their own, and keeps them asking if it was ever really theirs to begin with.