When An Adaptation Adds Something New
I recently saw two theatrical adaptations of books that were also made into films. The first, ‘Let The Right One In’, added nothing at all to the original – if anything, it reduced the ambiguities to one simple reading. The other added immensely to its former incarnations.
The latter was the Headlong production of ‘1984’, now at the Playhouse Theatre in Northumberland Avenue, London. For anyone who feels that Orwell’s original book and its various incarnations sometimes seem too polemical and dated, this production comes as a slap in the face by playing unsettling mental games with its audience.
At first the setting appears to be a book club rereading Orwell’s novel in a municipal library, but there seems to be a fault – dialogue sticks and repeats, fictional characters appear as events start melding with an imagined past and a dubious future. Sam Crane’s doomed idealist Winston Smith is tossed back in time and dragged through 1984’s events. But this is no mere flashback, for it also seems he might be remembering what happened from another perspective – his time spent being tortured in Room 101.
The repeat motif of ‘Oranges And Lemons’, sung and turning up on ring-tones, gives us something to hang on to, but are we watching memories, dreams or an altered reality? Luckily writer-directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have a very clear idea of what they want us to take away from the production. And part of that plan is to make the new version reflect the present day without being thunkingly obvious about it.
They do this by having video monitors (currently a popular device in London theatre) take up the top half of the stage, but they put them to clever use. We can watch the betrayal of Winston and Julia, and we become complicit. They also run a live video feed into Room 101, which unbearably brings us impressions of Guantanamo Bay and CCTV surveillance.
Winston, led on by a wildly dangerous Julia, is a man doomed from his first free thought. The problem has always been that he is a cipher, and this largely remains the case – but Orwell intended him as an everyman because he needs to be. The use of sudden blackouts including house lights feels innovative, and the repeated dialogue patterns create a genuinely nightmarish feeling as character dialogue overlaps, at one moment creating ‘Or, ‘Well’.
Icke and Macmillan have taken their cues from the clues in the book’s language appendices, and by doing so have substantially added to the original to give it fresh relevance for today. Having somewhat fallen out of love with Orwell over the years, this was a reminder of his importance. 1984 is shocking again, and anyone who has it on their syllabus should see it.