When I first read 1984 I was struck by the passage where Winston and Julia discover that their secret hide-away isn't quite as secret as they think it is. It left such an impression on my minds eye, I don't think I'll ever forget it - even thinking about it now makes me uncomfortable.
'We are the dead,' he said.
'We are the dead,' Julia echoed dutifully.
'You are the dead,' said an iron voice behind them.
The reason for digging up these memories is because last night I went to see 1984 on stage at the Almeida Theatre thanks to my good friend James who works in the box office and got us two press night tickets.
As we were seated and the performance got underway I struggled to match the book to what I was seeing - not that it wasn't true to the book, it was, I just wanted to get my bearings - until eventually I gave up trying and just concentrated on what I was seeing in front of me and that was one very impressive performance from Mark Arends as the lead character, Winston Smith.
Arends is one of those actors who performs a role completely, even down to the painful-looking curling of his toes during the torture scenes in Room 101 and before that he's coughing his lungs out and spitting blood across the set but it's not gratuitous, it pulls you in and at times I was so involved I forgot I was in a room full of people, I suppose that's why theatre remains so popular even in the face of iMax mega-screens and 3D cinema.
As the play progresses we're shown more and more of the set in increasingly imaginative ways, for instance, the secret hide-away I mentioned earlier is off-stage and relayed to the audience by cameras and projected onto a huge area above the stage. This makes their discovery all the more dramatic as Winston ends up holding the camera Big Brother has been using to spy on them all along.
Following that we're taken to the Ministry of Love and the entire set is transformed to a much larger space with white walls, white floors, harsh white lighting and plastic sheets on the floor that signalled to me that something nasty wasn't too far off. There's even a note in the programme from the RSPCA to say that 'no animals are harmed during the production' which immediately made me think of rats for obvious reasons...
Once Winston has been 'corrected', shall we say, we leave Room 101 and are taken to the appendix of the book which plants the seed that perhaps the Party hasn't fallen at all, perhaps it's just become invisible to the general public but it's still there, guiding, censoring and controlling everything we do. Chilling and still incredibly relevant today, especially with lines like this:
'They will not look up from their screens long enough to see what’s really going on.'
As a piece of theatre it was thought-provoking and unnerving in equal measure, just like the book, which is probably the highest praise I can give it.