I was recently witness to Headlong Theatre’s production of 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre. After about 84 minutes (of the intended 101) I walked out.
The only other time I’ve ever done that was in Edinburgh once, when the amateur bleating of failed Rada students set to a backdrop of improvised whale music proved too much. 1984 wasn’t amateur in any sense, but it was doubleplusterrifying.
In a rare moment of life being scared shitless by art, my pulse quickened, my breathing shallowed, and my brain refused to comprehend the brutal scene before me. In a remarkable act of staging, the previous, rather comforting wood-panelled set (akin to an aristocratic country house library) transmogrified into a stark, bone-white nothingness, leaving nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from the horrifying vision of Winston losing his fingers, then his teeth, then –
And I couldn’t take any more.
Physically shaken, and abandoning my companion, I stumbled clumsily down to the theatre bar to consider how a mere play had left my legs less stable than a wonky table.
It wasn’t just the depiction of torture. Or the convincing performances (Winston, played by Sam Crane, in particular). It was an assault on the senses. The unrelenting flicker of strobe lighting. The sudden plunges into complete darkness. The eerily electrical soundscape. Like a milder, shorter (but no less intense) version of some forms of sensory torture. If a play could be charged with Attempting To Cause Psychological Harm, 1984 would be convicted, and locked up.
What is the role of theatre? To entertain? To pacify? To give us fresh insight into our lives? To challenge society? Maybe all of these. There’s no doubting the appalling relevance of Orwell’s dystopian vision to today. But I think 1984 went too far. It took theatre into a deeply disturbing space. Shock-tactics modern audiences are supposedly immune to (what with our appetite for Netflix bloodfests and graphic videogames) have the potential to grab headlines, sure. But what is the lasting impact on the more sensitive theatregoer? The one (and maybe it is only one) in the audience who listens intently to every syllable, every intonation. The one who can sit through two hours of Beckett without breaking focus. The one who, one day, might become a playwright themselves.
Theatre, in its live, real, raw, un-genetically modifiable state has immeasurable power (and we all know what comes with great power). It doesn’t need to compete with vampire sagas over gore-porn. It doesn’t need to pander to smartphone-induced attention deficit by crafting overbearingly immersive experiences. And it doesn’t need to make audiences feel so uncomfortable that they trickle out, night after night, affected, disturbed, and unable to make sense of why.
But maybe that was the point.