Big Brother: Doubleplusgood?
1984 – Headlong @ Almeida Theatre, until 29 March 2014 (Tickets)
In the accompanying text to Headlong’s adaptation of 1984, they state that ‘Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan […] explore how Orwell’s novel is as applicable to the here and now as it ever was’ whilst the online trailer (below) draws on quotes from Bradley Manning and The Telegraph to make a clear link between the book and the current debate over surveillance culture.
In light of this the most surprising, and indeed pleasing, thing about Headlong’s production is how little it explicitly aligns itself with a modern world environment. Whilst Icke and MacMillan have played with form and function to add to a richer audience experience than would be allowed from a book that channels itself through the perspective of just one character, it is set within a world that far more closely resembles that imagined by Orwell than our current technology driven present.
This comes as a relief, as the idea of merging Orwell with modern society seems wholly too obvious and more than a little trite for a company who have carved out a reputation for purposefully innovative takes on heavyweight texts. Orwell’s book may have something to say about the dangers of allowing any one party to exert control over society but to try and parallel this with the use of modern surveillance techniques in democracies is facile and only serves to undermine the potency of his argument.
Indeed if the examples that Runciman highlights in his review of The Snowdon Files is an accurate picture then it may be possible for governments to gather information on pretty much anyone but the idea that they have any sort of competence to use it to manage history and through it control society comes across as laughable. The reality is that our general contempt for politicians is so great that the only way that they could get us to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 is to insist upon us that 2 + 2 = 4.
The entire existence of the internet – and with it websites like Wikileaks – serves to undermine the notion that Orwell’s book could become reality in a society as it currently exists. The world is too globally networked to allow a political organisation to control the flow of information in the way that Orwell envisioned; even in countries that use firewalls it is still relatively easy to get around censored sites. Big Brother may well be watching us but that does not mean that Big Brother is controlling us.
So it comes as a relief to discover that the computer on which Winston toils away to reshape history is an item that seems strangely out-of-kilter within Chloe Lamford’s set design, which evokes that late-Communist feel of a country industrially advanced but only holding its infrastructure together with threads. The communal canteen at the Ministry could be from any 1970’s public sector building whilst the grainy feel of the video through which we watch Winston and Julia’s secret trysts, and the voyeuristic overtones it brings with it, inevitably recalls The Conversation and the paranoia that runs through Alan J.Pakula’s The Parallax View and Klute.
That we may be reminded of the likes of Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda brings home a deliberate and brutal reality about the lives of Winston and Julia; that ordinary people, the archetypal Party drones, are rather bland and uninteresting, that desires and thoughts are mostly mundane and not the unique, world-changing inspiration that we like to believe. They may yearn for change but they will make do with chocolate and real coffee.
As we rail isolated against the system and plot great change from within who would want to admit to being more like Winston, with his ill-fitting vest tops and sweaty lank hair nervily considering whether or not to write a diary, rather than Beatty’s journalist, immaculately coiffured and square-jawed, uncovering conspiracies that go all the way to the top.
All of this is brilliantly exposed by O’Brien (Tim Dutton) who shows Winston the sad truth about his grand love affair; its furtive and grubby nature feeding a narrative that saw their radicalism only leading as far as their own desires. O’Brien levels the charge of solipsism at Winston, and the real terror of Headlong’s production is the struggle to disagree with the accusation. Their love, so important and all-consuming moments before, now seems so small; the world may have moved for them but they did not move the world even an inch.
Watch the trailer