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Review: 1984, Headlong Theatre


“I wrote last night that there is such a thing as truth. Facts are facts. Reality is reality. Two plus two makes four”

In an adaptation of George Orwell’s seminal novel, 1984, created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, Headlong Theatre succeed in utterly transfixing their audiences with its chilling reworking of what is a very well known text.

I first read 1984 when I was 12, and now realise that there is so much complexity that I missed: now, nearly 10 years and a literature degree later, I feel compelled to read the novel again, in the knowledge that I will understand it this time. Headlong’s production of 1984 has reinvigorated my interest in a text that I put to bed long ago.

So how did they do it? Somehow this play managed to keep me interested for the full length of the play- without an interval. The production was intense, and I came out feeling physically exhausted, but that really is the only way to handle a text like 1984. The audience was utterly drawn in to what was going on the stage; more than once did we all share a collective gasp at the grotesque, shocking events that were going on before our eyes. In the famous scene in Room 101 towards the end, I couldn’t take my eyes off the actors, and my friend had to ask me afterwards whether there really were real rats on the stage- there weren’t, which I think pays testament to Headlong’s ability of drawing in their audience’s every sense.

One thing that this production really played with was sound- or really, noise. Throughout the play there was an almost constant, electrical-style buzzing, running underneath the action. This was built to intensity as and when it was needed, building up the tension and dragging us all the edges of our seats. What was even more effective though, in my opinion, were the moments when this sound was taken away, suddenly plunging the audience into complete silence. 1984 is all about the feeling of constantly being watched, and the desperation to escape from it; the background noise helps to further the idea of never being fully alone, there always being someone, or something, there that you cannot trust, listening and watching.

Winston Smith, played by Matthew Spencer, is an interesting protagonist: he certainly isn’t a willing hero, and by the end you are left questioning whether or not he is even a hero: he cracks under interrogation, betrays his friends, and arguably is just as implicit in the world of Big Brother as those around him. Spencer’s portrayal, though, really fascinated me: the audience sees his constant struggle with that which is going on around him, and when he is in pain or suffering, I really did believe it. 1984 was brilliantly acted all round, but Spencer’s performance really stood out for me.

As a stand-alone novel, 1984 is chilling enough, and certainly leaves a reader thinking deeper about the realities of society and the state around them. Headlong’s production emphasises this, by closing by asking whether we can ever really know if the world we live in is not as meticulously controlled as Winston’s. I left the theatre full of deep questions about reality, and I still haven’t quite recovered. It’ll be a while before I read a newspaper or trust what I hear on TV again.

Overall, this is a meticulously crafted production that draws its audience in from the off, and keeps them there until its chilling conclusion. I don’t think I have ever been so transfixed by the theatre, nor will I be for a while. This is an addictive and brilliant production that adapts an already absorbing text and reminds its audience just how relevant it still is today; I honestly don’t think I can fault it.

In a nutshell, a five-star show.

Headlong Theatre’s production of 1984 is currently touring the UK. I saw it as it came to the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. Details of future tour dates can be found on Headlong’s website. 



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