One of my New Year's Resolutions was to attend the theatre more so I was excited to see that as part of their 50th Anniversary season, Nottingham Playhouse were putting on a production of Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four. A long time fan (not to say obsessive) of Orwell (one of the many reasons for my visit to Jura earlier this year) and lover of the book I was one of the first to buy my ticket when they went on sale.
I went on one of the 'preview' nights, mainly because the tickets are much cheaper (eleven quid for an evening of live entertainment in the city centre - what a deal!) and was pleased to see that the place was pretty much a sell-out.
As you can see from my breathless tweets immediately afterwards, I was some what impressed - this was one of the best pieces of theatre I've seen in a long time. It is a stylistically triumphant, sensitively adapted and compelling piece of theatre that has made me re-assess one of my favourite books. I urge you to buy some tickets now before they sell out.
It's worth noting that the play is run in one complete chunk - no interval so you're in your seat for over an hour and a half without a break. This was definitely the right artistic decision and it's a tribute to the quality of the performances that at no point did I feel the need to sneak out for a break.
I'm not going to do a detailed run through of the production as I would like you to discover it for yourself but I've got just a few observations I'd like to share. This is a little bit limited by the fact that I only started to scribble down some thoughts part way through the production and was hampered by the lack of light and something to write on - so this is based on what I could scrawl on the back of my ticket! Note also that the below assumes that you are familiar with the original story. If you're not then go out and read it!
Plotting. This was always going to be a challenge for the team writing the adaptation as Orwell's original text really wasn't that strong on plot - the awkward interpolation of Goldstein's Book and the appending of the essay on NewSpeak were obviously tack-ons from a writer desperate to get all his ideas out and into what turned out to be his last book before his untimely death. Bernard Crick's biography of Orwell reveals some interesting details of how Orwell had to resist attempts from his American publisher to remove these sections. What you have in the original is a fairly limply plotted story - but then fundamentally it's a novel of ideas rather than action. This theatrical production neatly sidesteps these challenges by throwing you directly into things, in media res, using the conceit of a book group from the future, discussing not the novel but Winston Smith's diary which in this future world has been rescued and published. This creation of a new world as a bubble around the world that Orwell creates is a very neat addition. The fact that the actor playing Winston slips in and out of these two worlds only further adds to his (and our) dislocation and sense of disorientation.
Language. This is the key way that disorientation is achieved in the book - we have to work hard to understand what's going on with the use of NewSpeak throughout and this difficulty not only generates meaning but also creates a sense of distance that makes it clear that this is a different world - not one that far away from where we are now but definitely different. In a live performance like a film or play this is a hard technique to replicate - the audience doesn't have time to learn a whole language or to flick back and forth to remind themselves what a particular word means so a lot of the NewSpeak is removed from this production. However, the effect of confusion and distancing is an important one to have in place and this production amply achieves this by the switching back and forth between the "present' (1984) and the future (some time around 2050) with the Winston character being something of both a participant and bemused observer in both. (This issue around managing the use of language was, of course, a similar problem to that faced by Kubrick in his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange for the screen - one that he neatly and cinematically managed by using the speeding up of images and the booming classical music soundtrack to achieve a similar end, especially in the more extreme scenes of sex and violence). As a final point on language, I was intrigued that one of the key passages in the book, Winston's fervent belief that, "If there is hope it lies in the proles" was not present in this production. There was a number of times when I was expecting it to be used but then the script shied away - a curious decision.
Design. Here the production really triumphed. The setting for the first half of the play is a claustrophobic multipurpose space that variously represents: Winston's front room, the canteen at the Ministry of Truth, the future book group, O'Brien's apartment and Charrington's shop. Again, this constant switching between different locations and repetition of some scenes several times helps create the sense of confusion, paranoia and control that Orwell wanted in his original text. Two moments of transformation however take this a step beyond and elevated the whole production to a frankly astonishing level of quality. The first is when Winston first goes with Julia to the back room of Charrington's shop. They disappear off stage left and after a momentary pause the action in the room off-stage is projected through a video link onto a screen on the top of the main performing stage. You are at this point watching a live production of an adaptation of a novel with the actors off stage being videoed and broadcast live on a screen on-stage. A tour-de-force in conception and execution. Of course, this all talks very clearly to the omni-presence of Big Brother and the hidden telescreen in the back room that ultimately leads to the betrayal of Winston and Julia - the audience is encouraged to ask, "are we watching through the telescreen alongside the Thought Police?". The second moment of design is one that borders on theatrical genius and leads on directly from this train of thought. At the moment that Winston realises that he has been betrayed or otherwise discovered (incidentally, I love the fact that this is left ambiguous in the book) the stage erupts into a cacophony of noise and light. The claustrophobic setting we have become used to for the first half of the play is transformed in what feels like only a few moments into a stark white cube - welcome to Room 101. Sirens blare and the lights go bright white and the walls of the stage move off into the wings. Bit by bit the stage is dismantled and carted away, leaving Julia in the shell of the back room, vulnerable and alone and with the Thought Police moving closer and closer. The addition of a V-For-Vendetta style mask to the uniform of the Thought Police is a smart little nod to the current political protest culture. After what feels like a moment but is certainly much longer you are exited out of one of the most absorbing moments in live theatre I've ever seen into the relative calm of an interrogation room in the Ministry of Love. You can imagine the rest...
Exhausting, exhilarating and edifying this is a not-to-be-missed treat - the play is only on until 28th September so move fast to get to see it before it's too late.