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19 September 13 words: Adrian Bhagat
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever."

1984 by Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Photos: Tristram Kenton

George Orwell's final novel, 1984, has become a part of our collective consciousness. The euphemistic personification of an oppressive government, Big Brother, has become a byword for the surveillance society and the torture chamber, Room 101, used to refer to any uncomfortable situation. This new adaptation for the stage is surprising in that it takes liberties with the narrative structure and yet succeeds in capturing the spirit of the book brilliantly.

Written after the Second World War as the Iron Curtain began to divide the new superpowers, the book is set in the near future, a time of austerity and perpetual war where technology is used to monitor and control the population. The government intends to replace English with Newspeak, a language in which is impossible to express any thoughts that are inconsistent with the ruling ideology. The book included a lengthy appendix which takes the form of an analysis of Newspeak written in the much further future, treating the novel itself as a historical work. Hence, the book becomes a character within the story of the novel itself. It is this appendix which inspired the framing of the play which opens with a literary circle discussing an inspiring book that changed the world.

The story concerns Winston Smith, a man whose vague memories of the time before totalitarianism make him disquieted and ready to rebel. He seeks to join the opposition movement, The Brotherhood, but cannot trust anyone or even be sure that the organisation exists. Constant surveillance makes any action dangerous and, with the government in control of the public narrative and able to demonise its opponents, probably unproductive.

1984 by Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse. Photo by Tristram Kenton

In this adaptation, the story is told through a jumbled narrative with recurring scenes. It's exciting to watch and fast-paced, the whole play fitting into a single act of 100 minutes. Without wanting to give too much away, the set is transformed through the play and appropriately much of the action is seen through a camera lens, making the audience into surveillants. There are torture scenes which made the audience squirm in their seats, more for what couldn't be seen than for what could. It is worthwhile to take note of the posters outside the auditorium stating that the use of animals conforms with the relevant welfare laws.

The parallels with the 'War on Terrorism' and the recent scandal about government surveillance are obvious and striking. However, you do not need to be concerned with politics or to be a fan of the book to enjoy this performance. The play addresses the issue of how we are to live as human beings in a world where every action is open to scrutiny and the human drama of Winston's rebellion is compellingly told.

1984 runs at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 28 September 2013


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