Review: 1984 (Liverpool Playhouse)

A few months ago it was reported that sales of 1984 – George Orwell’s classic novel about a state that relentlessly monitors the activities of its own citizens – have surged since Edward Snowden began leaking details of American and British surveillance operations. In the United States, sales of the book by Amazon were said to have risen by an incredible five thousand per cent. Since then the revelations have continued, and just recently we learned that America has been routinely tapping the phones of Angela Merkel and other world leaders. Phrases from the book which long ago entered the language – Big Brother, Room 101, doublethink – have come to acquire an even stronger contemporary relevance.

A perfect time, then, for a new stage version of the story. And this production, by the Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse theatre companies, certainly gives Orwell’s novel (originally published in 1949) a stunning 21st century digital makeover. There are inventive lighting effects, cleverly worked transformations of the set and a mesmerising stream of projected images. While the audience’s sympathies naturally lie with those who are under the continual watchful eye of Orwell’s fictional state, at times – as when the screen shows images of the protagonist Winston Smith’s clandestine love affair with Julia – we become the watchers, and feel uncomfortably complicit in the actions of the state’s Thought Police. We’re also unsettled by unexpected shifts in time; the world of the play has not only a past and a present but also an imagined future, one that is interestingly developed from hints in Orwell’s often ignored Appendix to the novel.

These confusions mirror the disorientating sensation of belonging to a society where the Ministry of Truth disseminates propagandist lies, and the Ministry of Peace has responsibility for waging war. But Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s skilful adaptation, like the original book, has a strong and clear central narrative, centred upon Winston and Julia’s brave attempts to oppose Big Brother. The Liverpool actor Mark Arends and Hara Yannas are excellent in these two roles. Arends’ edgy performance conveys Winston’s prevailing mood of paranoid fear and suspicion, while Yannas gives Julia a convincingly gentle strength. The icy detachment of O’Brien, whose role in Winston’s story emerges as the play develops, is captured superbly by Tim Dutton. The climactic scenes of Winston’s harrowing interrogation are undeniably powerful, though hard to watch.

This engrossing and thought-provoking production has won rave reviews around the country and is certainly worth catching during its short Liverpool run. (There’s an exceptionally informative programme as well!)

1984 is at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 2nd November.