Like an itch, it's a feeling that you can't get rid of, but it worms its way into your ear, a needle-thin piece of barbed wire invading your thoughts. This is the fear of being watched.
I've never read 1984 before (I know, I'm terrible!) because I'd read Animal Farm and was daunted by the dense nature of the book. But, I'm a sucker for theatre, and good theatre is rare and hard to find. So when my wonderful roommate Rachel invited me to go see an adaptation of 1984 with her today, I agreed. And boy, am I glad I did. Warning: there are a ton of spoilers below, so be prepared.
In a new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, 1984 creates the dystopian world that Big Brother oversees. It's terrifying and fearful because the play uses all of theatre's tools to reach out and grip you. It doesn't let go, and it's relentless in communicating this story to you. Like Winston, our protagonist, you get no breaks. No intermissions, no time to breathe, just the feeling that nothing is reliable and that it never ends.
From the beginning, we see Winston writing at a table, and the feed of his journal is projected onto a screen above. There we can see everything that he's writing, blown up and we get the feeling that we have an omniscent presence (but it's okay because we're the audience, right?). The adaptation makes use of this projection many times, with Winston's secret room, the two minutes of hate, always playing right above the main room, suggesting from its different angles that the cameras are there for people to see what's going on in a room that supposedly has no prying eyes. But again, the only ones watching are the audience.
The assault on the senses continues to the ears. Bright lights swell along with bass lines that rumble and shake. In the darkness, it feels like the theatre is moving, and when the lights come up everything is different from how you last saw it. Or was it? You begin to lose track of how things had been left, and the disorienting feeling of high frequency tones mixed with swelling waves of deep bass leaves you in a panicked state, trying to figure out, just like Winston, what the hell is going on. The high frequency tones are particularly eerie because they sound like ringing in your ears, and sometimes I wondered whether my ears were ringing or I was really hearing these tones. It was freaky.
Though these actors are clearly seasoned professionals, their performances bear no resemblance of a show that has been overperformed, and the night I saw was attacked with just as much fervour as if it were opening night. Matthew Spencer's portrayal of Winston as the regular Joe who realizes his inner hero, and most importantly, his fall, was incredible. With a Tony Hale-esque look that reminds me of Buster from Arrested Development he seems like a clumsy sort of fellow, one that wouldn't be capable of much damage. He's jumpy and nervous and scared, but when he realizes what he must do to bring down The Party, he becomes a willing hero. Not in the classic puffed-up chest suddenly-I'm-hot way, but in the manner of a guy who is scared to do what's right but feels he has to. And, the torture scene at the end was played out beautifully. I can't imagine having to do something so exhausting each night, but Spencer's portrayal had his helpless hands tugging, no, yanking at my heartstrings the whole scene. I wanted to leap up and run onstage and shout at all the characters, "What are you doing? This is insane! Stop!" That kind of performance comes once in a blue moon (so I guess we're lucky it's a leap year). Notable performance from Hara Yannas who played Julia, switching from the eerie thought-police potential to Wisnton's love interest.
In one particular scene, Winston is asked to see the future for what it is, and the house lights were brought up and the audience exposed. This move shook me, because I realized we were just as much part of the conspiracy as any of the thought police, and that yes, we were there as audience members, but any one of us could have just stood up and told Winston the truth. We were lit, he could see us, just as we could see him. We, the "future" were finally revealed, to be a sitting mob obsessed with watching his life. This poignant move pointed out how bound we already are by the conventions of what "good" behavior is. It's interesting to see how two things that should be removed from each other (that fourth wall still exist for a reason) can still be put together. I wonder how far it would be until an audience member did break that wall, and what it would take for someone to cross the threshold without a direct invitation.
Obviously, kudos to George Orwell for penning such a fascinating story, but also to the entire creative team for bringing to life a book with so much depth and translating it so perfectly for the stage. I was left shaken, and it's one of those shows that leaves you thinking about everything. What is the past? What did exist? And if we control memory and documents, do we control the past?
I solved my own little crazy thoughts post-show with this. Whatever past happened, whether it was truthful, or controlled and modified, like the one in 1984, it's led to this future. And although it's not perfect, it's definitely not the world that Orwell imagined.
So though I'm feeling shaken and moved and terrified, I'm filled with a sense of hope, too. And I'm no longer itchy.