George Orwell’s novel 1984 is one of the finest books of the twenty century. Belonging to the dystopian genre, it follows the struggle of our protagonist Winston attempting to rebel against a terrifying totalitarian system. With Winston's complete submission to the forces and ideals of the state, the ending is as powerful as it is hopeless.

What Orwell left us is a warning against and a prediction of the inevitable consequences of totalitarianism. To what extent our world uncannily resembles the society described in 1984 is an interesting question I do not dare answer. Surely, this masterpiece remains as relevant today as ever: many phrases, such as “Big Brother”, “doublethink”, “newspeak”, and the nightmarish “room 101”, have entrenched in our language and culture.

Given its sharp style and overall complexity, this novel is incredibly difficult to adapt – many attempts have been made, and most of them were nowhere near as good as the book. Orwell’s writing has a unique tone and style that both movies and plays struggle to capture.

Yet, the adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan for Headlong is surely extraordinary. This 1984 presents a very fascinating innovation and twist: all events are not set in 1984 but around 2050, when a group of historians discover and investigate Winston’s diary. The play is thus based on a series of uncanny and terrifying flashbacks, which well mirror the plot in the book and they also are the theatrical equivalent of doublethink. The logic of doublethink relies on constant contradiction: simply, it means to simultaneously accept two opposite beliefs as correct. If Orwell wonderfully manages to make the reader as confused as Winston when being re- educated by O’Brien, so the theatrical presentation does. Icke and Macmillan play mind games with their audience who, together with the group of historians, is challenged to decipher Winston’s tale: is it mere fiction? Or truly terrifying historical facts?

Whilst the play goes on, viewers find themselves more and more involved in such disturbing, provocative and strange yet very familiar society. The visual and sound effects, which reach their climax with the masterful scene in room 101, surely contribute to recreate Orwell’s dystopian vision of the world.

The adaptation is outstanding, perturbing and as such perhaps not for everyone. Above all, the main difference with the novel lies in the time setting: 1984 turns into 2050. Yet, the play perfectly captures the true essence of the book, and the constant swift transitions between past, present and future leave all audience speechless, almost imbibed in this frightening loop. “Whose past, future, if not present are we seeing?”: this the final or rather universal question, and this is exactly what I worriedly asked myself while leaving the theatre. 

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