1984: From Book to Stage


Hara Yannas and Sam Crane in 1984 (West End). Credit - Manuel Harlan

Headlong’s interpretation of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre, shows how brilliantly the novel can lend itself to stage production.

Their interpretation, directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, was eerily adapted to highlight the play’s relevance in today’s technology driven world. When a novel is adapted for the stage, it is essential to keep the audience in mind, especially for a book that was written over sixty years ago. This was cleverly achieved as the production commenced with a book club conversation on Orwell’s novel, with one character remaining silent, later becoming the protagonist Winston Smith. Mobile phone repeatedly ringing (later turning out to be to the tune of ‘Oranges and Lemons’), and everyone on stage then paying more attention to their phone screens that to the conversation, brought the story straight into the modern age. This mise-en-abyme created layers of reality; the story of Winston Smith definitely seemed like iction, but what about the world of those at the book club, or indeed the audience’s world?

Later in the play, when O’Brien claims that “everyone is too busy watching the screens to notice anything”, the word ‘screens’ takes on a more sinister meaning; whereas in Orwell’s day he was warning of television screens that were only just becoming popular, today we are inundated with types of screens in which to become lost. During one scene, the house lights were turned on to highlight the fact that audience were just spectators to this horrific drama and that we had become the screen watchers in the 1984 world; indeed, the action certainly pushed the boundaries of the fourth wall.

Another element that novels do so well, but plays may find a challenge to do, is conveying the thoughts of their protagonist or other characters. This element was overcome with loud, surround-sound voice-overs, often repeating “Where are you now?” a question that echoed not only inside Winston’s mind, but also was directed at the audience, sending goosebumps along the arms of spectators. The everyday characters’ dialogue worked fantastically and provided comical pauses and thought provoking repetition that made the audience question the reliability of what they were watching. On stage this dialogue was easier to comprehend and provided light relief from the unfolding intense drama, something that the novel does not always successfully provide.

However, admittedly, much like the novel, the action took a while to really develop. As I was hoping, most of Orwell’s difficult historical and political waffling was omitted, which placed less emphasis on the ‘proletariat’ and the exterior politics between the fictional nations of ‘Oceania’, ‘Eastasia’, ‘Eurasia’, something that Orwell spends a long time explaining. More emphasis was placed on the world of collective memory of the Party, and how reality was constructed around them, enough to make the audience wonder whether the reality they are in is also as constructed as the fictional story being played out before them.

In my opinion, the stage production was a little easier to understand when compared to the novel, for example, the haziness and fragmented nature of Wintson’s memory is broken up by magnificent flashes of light and electrocuting sounds which is explained with Winston’s visible torture in the ‘Ministry Of Truth.’ In the novel, the mismatch of memory makes for a rather difficult story to piece together, as much as that might have been Orwell’s desire.

The play was remarkably true to Orwell’s own words and descriptions. The set was one of my favourite elements, semi-opaque windows gave the uncomfortable feeling that someone out of view, ontinually watching, and at the end the whole set was manoeuvred, which allowed the audience to be swiftly transported to the “place where there is no darkness”, the ‘Ministry of Truth’ and the terrifying ‘Room 101’, not for the faint-hearted. It was as if reality itself was being transformed and taken away before our eyes.

After watching this 101 minutes of intensity, you will never think of the pleasant tune ‘Oranges and Lemons’ in the same way again, and you might even come away believing that 2+2=5, or is that the real truth?

Photograph: Manuel Harlan

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