REVIEW: Stunning performances in 1984 at Nottingham Playhouse

1984The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The moment when Winston Smith and his lover Julia realise they have been caught in this stage adaptation of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most dramatic I have ever seen on the stage. Away from the omnipresent telescreens, they have created a sanctuary where they conduct their illicit love affair and plot to bring down Big Brother and the Party. But in this terrifying scene lights flash, scenery is pulled down and the couple are taken away to face their inevitable fate: torture, indoctrination and the notorious Room 101.

The play, which opened at Nottingham Playhouse on Friday, is framed by two scenes set in modern times. The characters, who only really exist in Winston’s mind as the ‘unborn’ people of the future, study the forbidden diary he began to keep in order to confirm that his thoughts were still free and that two plus two really did equal four. This part takes us into Winston’s troubled mind and there were some great dramatic flourishes such as the fact that the mobile phone ring tone of one of the characters is Oranges and Lemons, the nursery rhyme which those in Winston’s world vaguely remember from the time before the Party took control.

But the modern era soon gives way to the paranoid world of Big Brother in which people view each other with suspicious eyes. At the Ministry of Truth, where Winston is responsible for falsifying documents from history, a dark routine is played out in the canteen. The same people have the same conversations every day – until one of them inexplicably disappears one lunchtime. This paranoia is heightened by a tray being dropped just as Parsons describes the execution of an enemy of the state and it reaches a dramatic climax during the absurd Two Minutes of Hate. In a scene which was perhaps even more gripping than the novel depicted, the characters shout words of hatred at a telescreen which shows someone being hounded by men in boiler suits and gas masks, while pictures of the ultimate enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein, flash on the screen.

Overall, this was a superb production with stunning performances throughout, particularly from Mark Arends as the poor, ulcer-ridden Winston. I did think that the relationship between O’Brien and Winston could have been drawn out a little further; in the novel O’Brien wins Winston’s trust over time so the moment when he betrays him is more dramatic however this is a minor qualm.The real power of this production, aside from the dramatic effects, lies in the fact that the director does not need to hammer home the idea that our world resembles Orwell’s vision in more ways than he could have imagined, for instance, the chilling moment when Winston ‘unpersons’ a man by deleting him from history, reminded me of how easy it is to remove people from social networking sites with the click of a button.

1984, which is a collaboration between Nottingham Playhouse and Headlong, is on until 28th September. For details and tickets visit the Playhouse website. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #1984Play.

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