Headlong’s splendid production of 1984 at the Almeida is inspired by the little-read appendix to Orwell’s book in which the development of Newspeak is discussed as if from a vantage point in the future. In formal terms, Winston Smith’s doomed rebellion against the Party relies on realist novel conventions where the story unfolds before us in real time, but the appendix reframes the novel as a historical and potentially unreliable document. Accordingly, the co-creators of this production, Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, use a framing device where a book group of the future discuss the text – but as the play will make clear, no text is reliable. History is not to be trusted. The individual has nothing to hold on to.
In the first scene, a camera records Winston Smith (Mark Arends) nervily beginning his diary. That moment of rebellion is made intimate for us through close-up on the screen, but at the same time we’re aware that the act of recording is being recorded. This is not a production that majors overtly on Newspeak and the impossibility of thought through the destruction of language, but the staging pounds away at the question of what is reality and whether it can it be externally verified. Winston deletes historical details of people who have been unpersoned, Party announcements are replayed as an endless loop and Parsons (Gavin Spokes) tells variations on the story of his daughter denouncing people to the Thought Police. It is only when Winston meets Julia (Hara Yannas) that he stops doubting his own sanity. Their short-lived refuge in Charrington’s flat (Stephen Fewell) is played offstage on a screen, foreshadowing their eventual arrest. They lovers are being watched after all.
The moment of arrest is a fantastic bit of theatre that leads to the final harrowing scenes of Winston’s interrogation and torture by O’Brien (Tim Dutton), whom Winston had believed to be a co-conspirator against the Party. The heretic must be converted before being unpersoned. (Those scenes are not for those of a nervous disposition.)
It ends with the frame, as the book group of the future return onstage – but any sense that they there to represent comfortable posterity and external reality is shattered when these readers for whom Winston is eventually writing dismiss his existence as a fabrication. The happy ending we would really have wanted is for Winston’s existence to be verified, but the truth is not available, even in posterity. Chilling.