Everyone knows the basics regarding Orwell’s 1984, or at least has heard of Big Brother or Room 101. Still, the book can be a little hard to digest; it’s not something you can easily imagine adapted to the theatre. Upon entering the theatre however, I lost my apprehension. The audience filed in past a seated figure, tied up and with a sack over his head and blood on his shirt. Already, I was starting to get an eerie feel for the performance. Cameras hidden in the darkness recorded the audience in their seats, projecting them at the front. The performance had already begun.
We watched as Winston (James Bone) woke up, a strange man we later learn to be O’Brien (Robbie Love) circling him, removing the sack to reveal the protagonist, the one through which the story was brought to life. The play progressed through Winston’s flashbacks and recreations of memories, rather than as an uninterrupted story in the present. This added to the performance as a whole rather than detracted, with the interruptions, hiccups and interrogations between the memories serving to remind the audience that it was all in the past, yet still evoking sympathy with the main character as his life crumbles.
At the same time, you see Winston’s reactions to his own memories as his incriminating diary is read aloud – his regret for trusting the wrong people, his love for Julia (Georgina Timms) whom he rebelled against Big Brother with, and ultimately, his revolt turning to compliance. Even if he had made some pretty obvious mistakes that you wanted to slap him for, you couldn’t help but want him to somehow escape, to reclaim his life and succeed in his rebellion against Big Brother. Of course, that never happens. Winston is tortured, his screams silent as the dark stage turns blue and a high pitched tone drowns the stage, leaving him convulsing in his chairs, battling with his restraints. To say it was unnerving to watch is an understatement, and it must be said that James Bone did an amazing job with this role.
The constant presence of cameras in this performance was pretty nifty. How better to press home the idea of a totalitarian state, of being constantly under surveillance, than to give the perspective of the telescreen that hears all and sees all? The audience has multiple views at once – the real life event that is playing out before them, plus one large screen showing surveillance footage, and two side screens that zoomed in on the action. We came to see a play, but we ended up with a peculiar theatre-film amalgamation, flitting between the two.
It was in this form Big Brother was revealed. Just a distorted video with a silhouette, Big Brother reported news that demanded to be listened to, everyone snapping to attention to hear the video’s message. Big Brother’s voice was layered, one female and one male voice falling over each other as Big Brother told us monotonously that the state was making great steps forward in the fight against Goldstein, the leader of the Brotherhood, the rebellion organisation. The video would play abruptly, crackling to life, catching the audience off guard as we break from Winston’s story to see Big Brother, the ultimate authority that he dared to rise against.
This was not the only thing that kept the immersion alive. Big Brother’s appearances, Winston’s desperate retelling of his past, and the booming voice of O’Brien interrogating the rebel all helped to draw us into the performance, to keep us on the edge of our seats. The thing that really stood out for me in this performance though, was how it never seemed to truly end. The interval began with Winston passed out on the floor, the audience asked to vacate the room. Again, we filed past Winston to escape the dark room, feeling oddly uncomfortable despite knowing it’s a performance and he’s actually fine.
The audience re-enters to find Winston back on the chair, just like the very beginning. The lights dim, and the interrogation starts again, following much the same pattern with the sack being taken off Winston’s head, and O’Brien barking questions. The performance takes off again, his diary building up to when he finally got caught plotting against the state with Julia, betrayed by the shopkeeper he thought he could trust.
Then we learn that all this has been played out inside the Ministry of Love, in the dreaded Room 101. Here, Winston is rewired to believe whatever O’Brien – or is that Big Brother? – wants him to believe. Two plus two equals five. ‘Down with Big Brother’ becomes ‘I love you Big Brother’, and you can’t help but feel unsettled as he is stripped of his free will and independent thought.
Here, the play ends, knowing Winston is destined for death in order to pay for his crimes now that he has been ‘cured’. The audience claps, but then there is silence. Is this the end? We can still see Winston on stage. Isn’t this where everyone takes a bow? We are quietly told the performance is over and that we can leave. We file past Winston, leaving the theatre in a bit of a stupor. Perhaps we as an audience were looking through a telescreen to see Winston’s interrogation the entire time, his torture a form of entertainment for us. When it was over, we left him to die, leaving behind the character and everything we had seen. It certainly gave me something to think about.
The cast, the tech team and the backstage team were all brilliant, and put together a really thought-provoking performance with a chilling atmosphere. It was great to see LUTG tackle 1984 and make it their own, giving the well-loved classic a fresh new spin.