As we enter the imposing, art deco Hackney Town Hall, we are badged and numbered by severe-looking staff in boiler suits. We are entering the Ministry of Truth and are about to take our assessments to be indoctrinated as members of the Ministry. It has the prospect to be uncomfortable and exhilarating – we all know the brutality of George Orwell’s 1984 after all, and its perilous reflections of modern society. The levels of disinformation that pollute today’s news cycle and the Big Brother-ish way we are watched at every turn make this a timely offering. Sadly, the opportunity is entirely missed and the immersive nature that is promised to us is never fully realised, resulting in an immensely frustrating evening.
A lounge singer croons in the background of the arrival space. As we finish our Negronis, she requests that we be upstanding for the National Anthem of Oceania, an adapted version of “Que Sera Sera” – it hardly tingles the nerves. We’re then herded into the main council chamber (impressive) where we are to take our assessments. Jude Akuwudike’s handsomely voiced O’Brien explains the nature of the Ministry’s work and the need for vigilance against the Thought Criminals. The past must be reviewed and, where necessary, rewritten – “he who controls the past, controls the future” – but there is a traitor to Oceania in our midst.
Surveillance footage of Winston’s (Declan Rodgers) illegal rendezvous with Julia (Kit Reeve) is shown on a large screen, but it all feels a little too PowerPoint and is less than immersive. We’re then herded back to the same arrival space which now has a bedroom tableau set up and we watch a perfectly pleasant love scene between the two love criminals. The Ministry, of course, steps in and removes them both. So, back to the council chamber, which is now Room 101 (the only difference being that the harsh lighting has been dimmed) for the final scene – yes, it really is that quick. Electric shock torture and some further nasties finally give proceedings a little bit of edge – some uncomfortable shifting on posteriors is noticeable as the final action takes place.
At 75 minutes (including herding time), it is all over and done with in a flash. Adam Taub’s adaption, directed by Jem Wall and Richard Hahlo, literally skims the surface of the classic work. The three central performances are all strong enough, but ultimately are thinly drawn and lacking in theatrical guts. Other than on a handful of occasions that Akuwudike makes fleeting references to embarrassed audience members, there is little immersion, and what plays out is more of a promenade performance of just one strand of the Orwell story rather than a fully realised immersive concept.
For anybody that is unfamiliar with the story, there is little here to give any great level of understanding to Orwell’s work. The limited immersion leads to lengthy exposition and simply lacks the drama that we yearn for. The harshly lit spaces of Hackney Town Hall are a treat to sneak peeks of Orwell’s dystopia, but are not spaces that entice us into it.