See the thing is, I used to hate Charlie Brooker. It was only when I realised that Nathan Barley was made in 2005 and that ‘the idiots are winning’ in a spectacularly prophetic fashion even today, that I began to appreciate his work.
Black Mirror series one (a little less so series two), felt like Brooker had turned his hand to something with significantly less foresight and more a look to the present and past. Although many of the episodes focussed on the the pervasion of peculiar technologies on our social and psychic lives, the ideas were certainly not new ones.
In fact, many of the ideas identified in Brooker’s Black Mirror have been around since Bentham unleashed his research on the Panopticon in the 1790s: you are being watched but to what extent, you do not know.
Of course, with a sheen on the exterior and the use of modern devices such as white noise and abrupt cuts between scenes and images, the series had a distinctively dystopian feel which left all of us stunned as we watched the zoophilic acts of Britain’s top politician beamed into our eyeballs on a quiet evening.
But I can’t say that I’ve ever really been stunned on a psychological level by something on the stage. I’ll admit that I was pretty freaked out the first time I saw Woman in Black but it wasn’t on the same plateau as the aforementioned Channel 4 programme or, for argument’s sake, Marina de Van’s Ne Te Retourne Pas (which left an entire cinema speechless on exit).
It’s sort of ironic then, really, that the first time that I had ever been so affected by a stage production was Headlong’s production of George Orwell’s 1984 which is undoubtedly one of the more enlightened influences for that old Black Mirror.
At a packed out Sherman Cymru, Orwell’s classic story saw an awkwardly modern adaptation at the capable hands of Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan.
Awkwardly modern? The production (the story is now approaching its seventh decade) makes an incredible use of lights, cameras and startlingly enveloping sound to paint the picture of what living in a totalitarian state must be like. However, the employment of those very recent devices was to illustrate ideas more suited to Orwell’s own time: propaganda and the possibilities presented at the birth of the idea of psychological power (Foucault’s very accessible lectures on the subject came only 20 years after the publication of 1984, Freud’s idea of the uncanny had been well discussed for 20 years previous.)
The use of blackouts and harsh sound and light to portray torture scenes in particular were very reminiscent of that awkwardly modern approach to this production.
However, while other productions would struggle to maintain a level of perverse enjoyment and, at times, dark comedy, against a backdrop of what is essentially a pleasant barrage of unpleasant techniques, the work of writers Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, Set and Costume Designer Chloe Lamford, Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers, Sound Designer Tom Gibbons and Video Designer Tim Reid as well as every single actor who appears on stage stands up and balances with care and vicious control the necessary components: this production is breathtaking. The words will be stolen right from your mouth.
In my opinion, this is a flawless piece of theatre and a great example of the magic of the medium: unlike Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror which can still be watched on demand, at any time, anywhere even now, this production will only be produced a limited number of times.
It is Orwell’s story eating itself on stage. Just as Winston’s covert reading has only been read by a few (?) people, so this production will only be seen by a few.
But won’t it just have an impact? I feel as if I’ve taken part in a happening.
If we gave ratings for creative works, this would get top marks – by every metric.
Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse’s 1984 plays at Sherman Cymru from now until Saturday 9 November 2013.