Blog Article

‘Under the spreading chestnut tree’: 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre

By Louis Mignot:


Under the spreading chestnut tree,
I sold you, and you sold me.
There lie they and here lie we
Under the spreading Chestnut tree.

– George Orwell, 1984


Orwell’s classic dystopia has increasing resonance for modern society, something captured perfectly by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan at the Playhouse Theatre in London. With a small cast, this adaptation captures the novel’s sense of isolation under a futuristic dictatorship in an apt 101 minutes.


1984 opens with a book group, in the novel’s future, discussing Winston’s diary. The writers do well to have the characters refer to the work in vague terms, calling it ‘this book’, giving the group’s thoughts on the piece a double meaning. When discussing the impact the book has had on them they are referring simultaneously to Orwell’s 1984 and Winston’s diary. This provides an ideal entry point to the production. This short scene is given added impact by the repeated halts in dialogue, caused by the character’s mobile phone ring tones, one of which is an electronic version of ‘Oranges and Lemons’, the song that runs like a vein throughout both the novel and the play.

Winston, played by actor Sam Crane, at first appears to be a spectral observer, a sort of physical soliloquy. It soon transpires, however, that our protagonist is simply outside the conversation. When he is finally brought into proceedings, Winston does not understand where he is; he repeatedly looks through the barely transparent window at the rear of the stage, where a ghostly Julia can be seen passing by. This, perhaps, offers a few potential plot twists; is Winston, at this point, imagining the future or is he in the future, imagining scenes from 1984? These questions are never fully resolved, but they do tie in very well with one of the character’s early lines: “Once you read this book, you are not the same person.”

Throughout the piece, Winston becomes increasingly sure of his revolutionary desires. The audience see him change on stage. His relationship with Julia, parallel with the novel, opens up a new world of un-partisan misbehaviour. Beginning with the inventive use of over-the-shoulder cameras connected to a screen above the actors, the audience gain a first-person view of his diary writing. The same device is used to show the diary on later occasions and to add space to the set; the back room Winston and Julia use for their anti-party activities is off-set, but the audience gain a near voyeuristic perspective, as if from a tele-screen. This, inevitably, leads to the discovery of Winston and Julia, as our protagonists discover the tele-screen in their room.

1984 2

Big brother is watching: Hara Yannas and Sam Crane, centre, as Julia and Winston (©Alastair Muir)

Icke and MacMillan’s interpretation of this classic novel is a vivid, visceral and emotional experience. This use of strobe lighting, the contrast of sudden darkness and light and some moments of true terror (the infamous Room 101 scene in particular) combine to give new life to an already highly relevant novel. The piece’s highly controversial torture scene in the allegorical Room 101 adds depth to an already pithy, resonant political commentary. Perhaps a comment on the UK’s complicity, through silence, in the torture of terrorist suspects, this scene had the entire audience shocked to their core. The visual spectacle was not gratuitous, however. The use of stark white lighting reflecting off of white canvas to form an abattoir-like set was contrasted perfectly with the black-outs that took place during the actual torture. As Winston was about to have a form of physical coercion performed on him by figures head to toe in white overalls, the strobes flashed and the entire theatre was blacked out before the lights quickly came up, revealing a bloodied and shaken Sam Crane.

Dr Paolo Gerbaudo, a lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London, wrote an article in the play’s programme. His piece, The Consent of the Surveilled, perfectly highlights the modern age’s drift towards elements of Orwell’s Air Strip One. It is important to remember, as Gerbaudo aptly points out, that digital communication is a two way street; just as the tele-screen can transmit and receive, so too do all the vestiges of modern social media. Every ‘like’ on Facebook, every tweet, even this article, will be stored. Just as family members bring out the photo album to show your friends and loved ones, so too will media organisations drag up that ill-fated photo or that hurried partisan status update, perhaps to scupper an important political career. In the future, we will all have these digital skeletons in our closets.

This is all the more stark when one flicks through any tabloid newspaper: the political and social scandal surrounding a slip of the tongue or a long-lensing in a hotel bedroom. Perhaps akin to a literary form of the piece’s two minutes hate, this all has the effect of publically shaming those individuals concerned. All this comes juxtaposed with the latest phone contracts from Vodafone, the latest car from Audi or investment opportunities from Investec – a salve for those ‘consenting surveilled’ of Gerbaudo’s article.

While we perhaps do not live in the age of ‘un-persons’, tele-screens or monolithic ministries populated by overall-clad party members, we do live in a rather more subtle parallel. We have socially shunned, de facto un-persons, Facebook apps that can record sound without any manual input, Xbox Kinects that will stop playing Netflix when too many people are in the room, and systematically stored information. This all, perhaps, amounts to a series of inconveniences, disrupting our rather high threshold of expected security; it may well be the start of a slippery slope.

All this is certainly speculation, it may never come to pass that we live in an Orwellian dystopia, but, as Icke and MacMillan highlight, we cannot simply allow ourselves to sleep walk into this potential future. Those sources that purport to protect collective security by promoting surveillance directly lead to a reduction in personal security. This is a balancing act, but one that must be maintained. One fears that, currently, the balance is tipping dramatically in favour of collective security. The fact that nations are currently embroiled in continued cat and mouse chases with spectral enemies in our modern day equivalent of ‘East Asia’ (the Islamic State in the middle east, for instance) merely provides individuals with a reason to consent to their surveillance. The portrayal of such forces as the villains, in contrast with ‘western’ security forces by mainstream media further strengthens this trend.

Icke and MacMillan’s new interpretation of George Orwell’s 1984 gives a new lease of life to a classic novel. A stark visual experience, this production is a must see.


Louis Mignot is a second year undergraduate student at King’s College London reading War Studies and History. You can follow Louis Mignot on Twitter @LouisMignot.


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