Having counted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four among my favourite books since the age of 13, I was concerned that over-familiarity might mar my enjoyment of Matthew Dunster’s new stage adaptation.  After three hours’ immersion in this powerful and affecting show, however, I was overwhelmed by empathetic exhaustion, sadness and resignation, alongside deep admiration for the cast and crew’s success in staging the novel so vividly.

Like the 1984 film starring John Hurt, Paul Wills’ design for this production depicts 1984 through the prism of the post-World War II, early Cold War context it was written in.  Jonathan McGuinness stars as Winston Smith, an apparent everyman in totalitarian socialist state Oceania, who works diligently at the Ministry of Truth.  His every move is tracked by two-way telescreens, which endlessly broadcast state propaganda and slogans as well as monitoring the population, until he finds an unseen corner where he can make subversive diary entries defying the party’s symbolic leader, Big Brother. 

Delivered in voice-over, these private and highly dangerous musings quickly reveal Smith’s lack of faith in his leaders, with their three-year plans, thought control, dissident purges and re-writing of truth and history.  Orwell’s allusions to Stalin’s USSR, still obvious today, must have been deafening to the book’s first readers, integrated as they are with suggestions of other, then recent, movements like the Hitler Youth and Italian Fascisti.

Soon afterwards Smith is approached by co-worker Julia, who pledges her love for him via a secret note.  Meeting in a crowded square the pair manage to arrange a secret liaison outside the city, and are soon engaged in a series of (artfully simulated) sexual trysts in an un-monitored room in the ‘prole’ district.

Caroline Bartleet portrays a more youthful and self-assured Julia than I had previously imagined, who guffaws over her work in the state’s Anti-Sex League and porn-production department and seems to seek illegal sexual adventure for its own hedonistic pleasures.  I found the love relationship between her ‘jolly hockey sticks’ character and the romantic, serious Smith one of the least convincing aspects of this production, but in the context of the daily privations suffered by both it remained feasible that each would grab the opportunity for enjoyment and intimacy.  

In contrast, McGuinness’s outstanding performance as Smith left me feeling as ruined and battered as the character by the end of the play’s final, gruelling, act.  Designer Wills’ vision of dystopia also took on new force as archaic, rusting instruments of torture were juxtaposed with the stark tiling and fierce lights of the state prison, depicted as a kind of clinical pit in which Winston writhes as all individuality and truth is driven out of him.

Paul Moriarty also deserves special mention for his performance as ‘enemy of the state’ Goldstein, whose barnstorming polemic on social stratification and change, rooted firmly in Marx, was worthy of Speaker’s Corner’s finest.

That the play seemed to lose some pace in its final third is no fault of this production, as I have long had similar reservations about both the book and Michael Radford’s film adaptation.  Having been billed as a new version this production was perhaps closer in style and mood to the latter than I had expected, with even the lead characters’ hairstyles mirroring those of their screen counterparts, but its filmic qualities and closeness in tone and spirit to the book meant I had no problem suspending my disbelief and immersing myself in this horrific vision of a future now passed. 

Jo Nightingale (www.jonightingale.co.uk)

1984 plays until Saturday 27 March, 2010 (www.royalexchange.co.uk)


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