Theatre adaptations of classic novels would probably go in several critics’ personal Room 101s – especially those with narrators, or, heaven forfend, voiceovers. But this latest transfer from Islington powerhouse the Almeida Theatre manages to be intensely literary without any of the staid, storytelling bookishness that can plague the genre. Together, Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke both adapt and direct an intense reimagining of Orwell’s hellish dystopia that’s as much about the fragile exploitability of individual experience as Stalinism or political authoritarianism. They treat protagonist Winston Smith's story as an unreliable artefact in a production that’s mesmerisingly slippery and unreliable in turn.
It’s almost tempting to imagine how much more power this production would have if its narrative, ideas and most of all language were completely new and unfamiliar – if you could hear the phrases “Big Brother” or “Room 101” without the slightest trace of reality TV sleaze clinging to them. Although completely modern, this production completely rejects this popular culture, black button-studded frame of reference in favour of the more scholarly frame of Orwell’s appendix to his novel. This text is delivered in the form of a lecture and discussion at some kind of adult education group, in a future world after the planned 2050 full introduction date of brainwashing philological experiment New-speak. They talk about the world of 1984 as though it’s a new Dark Ages, almost bereft of records – and Winston Smith’s diary as a fragile testament, its author’s name certainly a fiction.
In keeping with this backwards looking frame, Chloe Lamford's design rejects boiler-suited dystopianism in favour of a retro futurism populated by design elements from the 1930s and 40s – a reminder that this landscape is scarred and shaped by Orwell's own experiences of wartime and post wartime Britain, still beset by rationing, compulsory identity cards, and paranoia over spies. This aesthetic fits into a reading of Orwell’s novel that’s not really about Stalinism or communism. Instead, and more topically, it’s about repressive governments, and the toll that surveillance and psychological torture exact on the individual – seen through Winston’s rapidly fracturing psyche. He’s trapped in a complex system of flashbacks and flashforwards in an ingeniously patterned text that’s as clever as Orwell’s ingenious structure of indoctrination and socially ingrained paradoxes. As his sense of self crumbles, so does his reliability as narrator.
Macmillan and Icke’s adaptation weaves a complex route through Winston’s mental universe – the sudden shocks, blackouts, scene changes, and most of all the ear-splitting blood-curdling screeches of Tom Gibbons sound design are an inextricable part of their interpretation. Between them, the scenes and performances are suffused with the retro-oddness of old shop window dummies, their arms ever-so-slightly askew. The ensemble canteen scenes especially are brilliantly surreal, with an Are You Being Served style atmosphere of camp, institutional oddness – a man polishes a table that isn’t really there in mists of chemical spray, while stolid diners utter the same stolid phrases, varied enough only to poke at Winston’s fears and vulnerabilities. And Mandi Symonds as a brilliantly solicitous, human Mrs Parsons and her highly obnoxious infant daughter make a satisfying double act.
Still, in a production of this giddy fluency, some of the performances feel a little stilted. Sam Crane’s bewildered Winston is more bluff than edgy, and Hara Yannas’s haunted child air as Julia heightens out, without critiquing, the misogyny of Winston’s narrative that paints her as rebellious only as far as necessary to satisfy her desires for love and chocolate.
The Almeida’s been an engine for West End transfers of late – last year, both Lucy Kirkwood’s new play Chimerica and a revival of Ibsen’s Ghosts made the transfer, and both won multiple Olivier awards. This slick, mercilessly bright production easily deserves a place in the same lineage. And be warned: this Room 101 is one of true horrors not pet peeves.