1984, Headlong at Shakespeare Theatre Company
In Headlong’s production of 1984, directed and adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan and currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, nothing is comfortable, onstage or off. Even in the audience, we aren’t allowed to relax comfortably into our seats, safe behind the fourth wall. We are prey to bright lights shining into our faces, loud noises, visceral stage violence that—we are warned by the placard outside—may cause problems for those of “nervous dispositions.” But the desire of the playmakers to unsettle its audience goes beyond the physical; from the moment the lights go up, the audience is challenged on what their own relation to a familiar story is going to be for the next 100 minutes. Just exactly what version of Winston Smith’s story has the ensemble read, Orwell’s or Smith’s own? Does the familiarity of cell phones indicate that we’re in our present day? Or are we somewhere, or sometime, else? And who exactly are “we” in this story?
The answers don’t come easily, nor should they. Headlong’s production of one of the most familiar stories of the twentieth century is invigorating and potent. The language of Orwell’s dystopian future has become part of our own cultural lexicon, so much so that when the members of the ensemble first speak the words “Big Brother” or discuss the merits of Newspeak, the audience chuckles to hear the familiar back in its original context. But the power of Orwell’s novel, brilliantly realized in Icke and MacMillan’s adaptation, is that it has always been a story simultaneously about the past, present, and future. Program notes tells us that in crafting their adaptation, Icke and MacMillan seized upon the epilogue, set in an even more distant future that had also read the story of Winston Smith. In their production, we in the audience are also implicated—we have likewise watched Smith (, played here by actor Matthew Spencer) when he doesn’t want to be seen, when he believes himself to be most private, on stage and viewed on screens. We have to interrogate ourselves, both for what we’ve seen onstage, and for what we may likewise see out in the world beyond the theatre.
Adaptations can often be under pressure to justify their existence. We’ve counted 1984 as a seminal piece of literature for decades, why must it now be a theatre piece? Icke and MacMillan find their answer in several ways, first by the deliberate ways in which they challenge the way in which the audience engages with the story and with its own role as an audience, aided by their design team (Chloe Lamford, Natasha Chivers, Tom Gibbons, and Tim Reid). Through their talented ensemble, the directors are able to take the subjective experiences of Smith’s story and embody them. We inhabit a murky and dreamlike world where no one is quite as real as Smith, where actors can suddenly appear or disappear in an eye blink, or robotically wipe down a table that isn’t entirely there. It's a tribute to the careful treatment of this world by the actors that no one is quite as real as Winston Smith, and so no one can truly be trusted. Hara Yannas's Julia comes closest, but we can feel the doom always right on the horizon for them both, whether or not we remember the details of Room 101.
1984 is not an easy piece, but it is an important one. That said, quite a lot of theatre that gets labeled as “important” can also be called “deathly dull” and “weighted down with their own importance.” This production remains deftly handled throughout, speeding us to our inevitable conclusion, and buoyed by the skillful and unrepentant theatricality of its adaptation. This production is strongly recommended, both as a high bar in what the theatre can do for a familiar story, but also for theatre’s power to move us, unsettle us, and challenge us to look at the world again—and to not forget all that we’ve seen.