1984, Richmond Theatre


Originally written for Exeunt.

George Orwell’s chilling dystopian novel is best remembered for the features that have seeped into our contemporary cultural consciousness: Big Brother, Room 101, the Thought Police. But perhaps the real key to Nineteen Eighty-Four lies in its final, often overlooked pages. In Headlong’s bracing new version, adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use Orwell’s typically discarded Appendix as a means of re-examining his entire narrative, offering – in what sounds like a perfect instance of doublethink – an extraordinarily faithful transformation of the text.

Orwell’s dry, formal Appendix, entitled ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, begins with the seemingly innocuous words “Newspeak was the official language of Oceania”. Realising, like Orwell, the huge difference contained in a change of tense, Icke and Macmillan latch onto that crucial “was” and hang upon it their entire adaptation. In their nightmarish rendering of this dystopia, past, present and future are slippery, fluid categories, bleeding into one another before our eyes. What we are left with is the blank, continuous present that the Party envisioned, where the notion of history has been all but abolished.

This is achieved through the canny addition of a framing device, which tackles the troublesome Appendix by way of a book group interrogating Winston Smith’s tale. Imagining Orwell’s novel as an artefact, this structural flourish puts Winston’s experiences in direct dialogue with the future he hoped to speak to when starting his diary. And yet, in a conundrum that reveals the central problem of the Appendix itself, this textual artefact is not in fact Winston’s diary, but a third person account of his rebellion and suppression. How, then, has this document survived? Who has written it? And if it really has survived, who has allowed it to survive?

These questions are persistently posed by an adaptation that strikingly reconfigures Orwell’s text in service of a searching examination of what it is doing. Through an unsettling temporal slippage, the future framing of the narrative exists directly alongside Winston’s hatred for the party, his ill-fated love affair with Julia and his horrifying ordeal at the hands of the Ministry of Love. The world this structure creates is one where no firm foothold can be made on either the past or the future, one where uncertainty is the only constant, one where – most importantly – no document can be trusted.

The theatre, where a kind of doublethink is constantly in play, is the perfect arena for this dizzyingly intelligent interrogation of truth and fiction. Here, we are always caught in the process of accepting that an object on stage is at once one thing and another, a function of theatrical metaphor that Icke and Macmillan’s production repeatedly exploits. Mark Arends’ haunted, disorientated Winston always creates the impression of being both here and not here, dislocated from linear time. “Where do you think you are?” he is repeatedly asked, to which the answer is always bewilderment.

As well as the crossover between temporalities and characters, Chloe Lamford’s inspired set design epitomises this relentless doubling. The first part of the show is contained within a bland office space, all non-descript chairs, wood panelling and boxes of files. This serves as both the setting for the book group and the backdrop of Winston’s existence, demanding metaphor in order to function within the narrative. The only area external to this space is Winston and Julia’s short-lived retreat, which is at once hidden and exposed; it exists off stage, beyond our immediate gaze, but it is revealed to us via video footage on screens, putting us in the position of the ever-vigilant eye of Big Brother. In the final third of the show, meanwhile, this design achieves a breathtaking transformation, stripping away tangible referents in a process that mirrors Winston’s struggle to hold onto memory and reality, yet still refusing to fix itself on just one, determinable location.

And it does not stop with the design. Every last element of this production, from the discordant strains of Tom Gibbons’ sound design to Natasha Chivers’ accomplished lighting, which ranges from the unsettlingly anaemic to the blindingly bright, contributes to a disquieting atmosphere of uncertainty and uprootedness from time. We, like Winston, have nothing solid to grasp onto.

With Chelsea Manning, the NSA and Edward Snowden still dominating headlines, we hardly need reminding of the continued and disturbing resonance of Orwell’s 1949 novel. Headlong’s startling new production, however, suggestsNineteen Eighty-Four’s prescience in another, deeper way. Orwell’s vision, Icke and Macmillan reveal, penetrated beyond the structural framework of surveillance, right down to the disorientating experience of modern life under late capitalism. Like all the worst nightmares, its chill emanates from its uncanniness.

Medea, Richmond Theatre

In a modern society supposedly desensitised to blood and horror, the grim tale of Medea might just be one of the last taboos. Apart from perhaps Oedipus, whose plight has been largely subsumed into Freudian psychoanalysis, it is this vengeful murderess and her infamous crime of infanticide who holds the greatest sway on the modern imagination of all the protagonists of Greek tragedy.

Passed down through adaptation upon adaptation, this latest version by Mike Bartlett and Headlong sees her transplanted to the unlikely location of a British housing estate. The chorus become gossiping neighbours and work colleagues, all nosily observing the collapse of Medea’s family as philandering husband Jason prepares to marry Kate, the young daughter of his landlord, while Medea and her son Tom co-exist in a silent state of grief.

Bartlett’s conflicted updating of Euripides’ tragedy is myth as simulacra – all surface and no depth. His approach opts for naturalism with a hard, plastic edge, drawing attention to its own fakery, while everywhere the artificial and the shallow loudly dominate. Medea’s “friends” keep up the appearance of concern while pursuing their own interests and desires; the dissatisfied next door neighbours make relentless home improvements; Jason and Medea’s silent, ghost-like son might as well be the symbol of a child.

Nowhere is this sense of the superficial facade more unsettlingly conveyed than in Ruari Murchison’s pop-art doll’s house of a set, which conceals four boxed-in rooms behind screens displaying the pointedly flat exterior of Jason and Medea’s house. These contained domestic spaces are disturbingly neat, pretty and precarious, a fitting microcosm of the identical houses and manicured lawns that fill the sterile, hermetically sealed suburbia outside. Like the chilling rows of perfectly pastel homes in Edward Scissorhands – far more frightening than Johnny Depp’s razor digits or shock of black hair – the production evokes a stifling suburban ennui in which Rachael Stirling’s restless, raging Medea writhes like a flame-haired Fury.

What Bartlett is attempting to demonstrate through this shiny, brittle aesthetic, however, never becomes fully clear. Is the unapologetic flatness of both design and performances a comment on the superficial emptiness of modern life? If so, how does that emptiness resonate with the tale that Bartlett is reworking? There is a straining tension at the heart of this updated adaptation, but it is a damaging rather than a productive antagonism. Alongside the contrast of ancient and modern, the production frequently finds itself torn between opposing camps: misogyny versus the plight of women, psychological damage versus seemingly unexplained madness, logic versus magic, religious faith versus the empty realisation that all we have is “life and death and the waiting in between”.

In clumsily negotiating between the ancient and the contemporary, Bartlett’s version finally comes down on the former. Abandoning the lacklustre attempt at psychological exploration that lightly peppers the piece, in the end his Medea is faithfully vicious and unrepentant. As she stands at the play’s close dripping with blood and triumph, Euripides’ starkly uncompromising vision of a woman prepared to go to any lengths for revenge emerges unscathed from the wreckage of this muddled attempt at wrenching her into the modern day.

The Taming of the Shrew, Richmond Theatre

Ah, that old problem of the Shrew. This most irksome of Shakespeare’s plays is itself resistant to being tamed, often refusing to bend to directorial interpretations that try to smooth its rough, arguably misogynist edges. It is not a play that I can profess to having much personal fondness for and one that I doubt I will ever come to love, but the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest attempt certainly has a spirited if slightly over-enthusiastic stab at it.

In director Lucy Bailey’s vivid vision of this troublesome play, the battle of the sexes boils down, ultimately, to sex. Bed is not just the setting for consummation of marriage, but the location for Petruchio and Kate’s entire twisted courtship, with Ruth Sutcliffe’s triumphant, sheet-draped set denoting both subtext and end point. The sparring couple’s struggles are, in this context, simply a bizarre and extended form of foreplay. The bed is also the seat of dreams, making it an appropriate stage for the fantasy drunkenly dreamed by Christopher Sly, another man with sex on the mind who is kept present amongst the action throughout in the humorous form of a gamely slurring, staggering and burping Nick Holder.

But this interpretation is not all about crude gestures, winks and nudges and a tumble between the voluminous sheets. Sex is intriguingly associated with money and, by extension, power. When Baptista, after marrying wild Kate off to Petruchio, offers younger daughter Bianca’s hand in marriage to the man who can make the highest offer, her suitors illustrate their wealth and ‘hangings’ with sexually suggestive actions indicative of their generous endowments – financial or otherwise. Meanwhile, the very crudeness of making the bed a public arena stresses the crudeness and cruelty of the marriage market, in which women and sex become commodities. By breaking away from these rigid, narrow-minded practices, Petruchio and Kate finally reach, by comparison, a more natural union.

The central relationship between ‘shrew’ and ‘tamer’ is of course the focus, carrying the burden of the piece. The sparky, wild dynamic between Lisa Dillon and David Caves bears this burden with attitude, as the pair constantly dance around once another, grapple and come to blows. Bailey has cultivated a particularly physical pairing, presenting us with two misfits who can barely stay still; Caves’ Petruchio paces, struts, fidgets and at one point even drops into press-ups, while Dillon’s hands yo-yo from hips to dishevelled hair in conveying Kate’s anger and agitation. Thus, when rare moments of forgetful stillness do arise, a strange sort of understanding seems to leap the gap between them, eventually bringing them together.

For all its bold and sexy swagger, however, Bailey’s production does not quite surmount the hurdle of this play’s undeniably tricky gender politics. Although Dillon delivers Kate’s final submissive speech in mockingly sarcastic tones, she cannot overcome the meaning behind the words, which are not sufficiently explained away by the relationship that Bailey has crafted. To negotiate the plot’s inherent difficulties we are sold a messed up love story, but despite the sexual chemistry it is a romance that struggles to be credible. Both Kate and Petruchio are certainly screwed up outsiders, but their behaviour in this production is often so outrageous that it becomes difficult to care too deeply for them.

This is sexy, brash, vigorous and often very funny fare, but it fails to fully redeem a play that still feels more than a little unpleasant. In the end, Bailey’s striking if not all that subtle bed concept says it all, in a production that gives us a lot of lust without very much love. As Petruchio and Kate finally, ecstatically jump beneath the sheets, we are left in little doubt that the sex will be great, but the morning after looks to be on rockier ground.

The Taming of the Shrew runs at Richmond Theatre until 24 March then continues on tour.

The King’s Speech, Richmond Theatre

The burden of expectation does not come much heavier than when laden down with four Oscars. Adrian Noble’s stage production of the David Seidler script that became a surprising jewel in the crown of British cinema has a lot to live up to, but it approaches this now familiar subject matter with a stylish and almost dogged assuredness, seeming not to suffer from the same tongue-tied difficulties as its protagonist.

Set in the years surrounding the Edward VIII abdication crisis, the play, like the film, follows the relationship between George IV – known as Bertie – and his unconventional Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, as the pair attempt to overcome Bertie’s inconvenient stammer. While superficially about the less than thrilling subject of speech therapy and less superficially about one man’s personal struggle, this is more meaningfully about responsibility, personal conflict and the nature of the relationship between monarch and subject.

In Bertie’s eyes – at least the Bertie of Seidler’s imagination – a king is there to serve his people just as much as, if not more than, they are there to serve him, an interesting notion of mutual obligation. Such ideas of duty are less important to Daniel Betts’ selfish, sneering David, who is almost more unpleasantly selfish in this depiction than in the film. Following the death of his father King George V and the concern surrounding his mistress Wallis Simpson, he is shown to care for nothing but ‘that woman’ and to expect the country to bend to his whims, a situation of crisis that makes it ever more important for Bertie to find his voice.

Personal motivation versus public duty is also a particularly fascinating battle in light of the story’s political context, which is foregrounded more than in the film but could still be explored further. In a precariously positioned Europe which is, as we are reminded, divided between the two extremes of communism and fascism, where does a monarch fit into the political picture? This is a question which is not really broached by Seidler’s play; the rumbling approach of war serves more as a backdrop for Bertie’s trials and as an agent of urgency than as a topic of historical investigation in itself. When Bertie finally gives his triumphant speech, accompanied by stirring strains of Elgar, historically ill-informed audience members could be forgiven for thinking that this was a deciding factor in our eventual victory.

There is room, however, for some compelling performances. The excellent Charles Edwards is a frustrated, engaging and very human Bertie; his whole coiled body seems also to stammer when he struggles to get his words out, while in another, unguarded moment he displays charming, almost childlike fascination with a model plane. Similarly rich is Jonathan Hyde’s warmly humorous performance as a wonderfully rebellious Logue, caring not a bit for royal etiquette, and there is strong support too from Emma Fielding as a feisty Queen Elizabeth. Anthony Ward’s clever revolving picture frame set, meanwhile, is a star in its own right, by turns framing moments of history and acting as a physical barrier between two men from very different worlds.

There is no doubt that Noble has created eminently watchable, entertaining theatre. It could be argued that entertainment is enough, but when examining such an intriguing chapter of history it is a shame that more of its nuances have not been investigated, a depth of exploration that could have set this stage production apart from its big screen sibling. It is even worth pausing, nit-picking as it may be, to ask whether this stage version is wholly necessary. With the film still fresh in the nation’s collective memory, what purpose is this production serving? Seidler’s script may have started life as a play, but it hardly needs to return to the stage for legitimisation. Likewise, Noble’s incarnation is slickly enjoyable, but it is not quite powerful enough in its own right to vanquish the lingering ghosts of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.

I suspect that it might have more to do with the Royal Family suddenly being back in vogue. Royal Wedding fever had us in its thrall last year, we’ve been assaulted with portrayals of Wallis Simpson left, right and centre, this year sees the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and interest in the royals as individuals has rarely been greater. Noble’s first striking image, of a naked king facing the mirror and seeing his royally attired reflection staring back at him, says it all. It is this contrast between the public, trussed up image and the exposed human being beneath, so perfectly realised in Edwards’ Bertie, that sustains the nation’s interest in the Royal Family and ensures that this story continues to capture the imagination.