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Theatre: 1984 and The Mistress Contract

Orwell’s dystopian vision is convincingly staged but Abi Morgan’s latest is like a visit to Room 101.

Big Brother is watching you. Photo: Getty
Big Brother is watching you. Photo: Getty

1984; The Mistress Contract
Almeida Theatre, London N1; Royal Court Theatre, London SW1

“Oh, the people aren’t going to revolt,” grunts a Party apparatchik near the end of 1984, a new stage adaptation of the novel. “They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice.” Orwell’s book has the knack of seeming permanently relevant, whether your context of choice is the cold war, Facebook and Google, the British government’s struggles over anti-terrorism measures or the NSA’s trawling expeditions for our metadata. A new adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, effusively praised when it set off on a national tour last September, has at last arrived in London – and what an unnerving piece of theatre it is. Terms such as “Big Brother”, “thoughtcrime” and “Room 101” are shop-soiled with overuse but here 1984 has something genuinely chilling to say.

Stealing a trick from Orwell’s appendix to the book, Icke and Macmillan begin in a kind of suspended future. At one end of a scuffed seminar room-cum-library-cum-cafeteria, a literary group is debating the novel’s hermeneutics; at the other, Mark Arends’s bug-eyed Winston Smith is in the process of writing. The action slips and hiccups between past and present, scenes folded into each other like origami. Some sections are prerecorded and broadcast on a video wall; elsewhere, glazed-eyed actors enact the same nightmarishly banal lunchtime scene over and over again.

This hyper-literary approach is mannered but it does remind you of the book’s disconcerting originality – and also that, for Orwell, tyranny over words is the first step towards totalitarianism. It’s partly the Party’s use of Newspeak that keeps Big Brother in power (“The only language whose vocabulary gets smaller every year!” trills one of Winston’s colleagues). When Winston is forced to rewrite history in the Ministry of Truth, you sense that half the battle will be won if he can simply remember how to sing a nursery rhyme.

In Chloe Lamford’s artfully shabby design, 1984 bears an uncanny resemblance to the year the book was finished, 1948: the drinks trolley might be dispensing Victory Gin rather than Bovril but with light orchestras tinkling on the wireless and a headmistress-like voice bawling announcements from the telescreen, there’s little doubt as to where Orwell found his inspiration, or when. The place almost reeks of boiled cabbage.

It is only in the final scenes that the show loses its hold. Tricked into a confession by the unctuous O’Brien (Tim Dutton, who has the air of a Harley Street dentist rather too fond of sharp implements), Winston is dragged out of the safe house he shares with his lover, Julia (an ardent Hara Yannas), and brought to the ministry’s torture cells. There, in dazzling white light and the goriest of detail, the production stumbles into literalism and forgets a rule perfected by Big Brother: it’s better to be unseen if you want to be believed.

Orwell wrote that Big Brother’s vision of the future was of a boot stamping on a human face for eternity. That might be preferable, I can’t help feeling, to spending any more time with the couple at the centre of Abi Morgan’s The Mistress Contract, whose nerve-shredding obsession with their relationship left me yearning for someone to step in and collectivise it.

The premise is undeniably fascinating: based on an anonymous real-life memoir, the play focuses on two lovers who draw up the terms of an affair with cool legal precision. “She” (Saskia Reeves) will provide “mistress services” whenever “He” requires, including, but not limited to, sex on demand; “He” (Danny Webb) will provide commodious accommodation in return. Both achieve exactly what they want, no other strings attached. Needless to say, over the three decades they’re involved with each other, each gets more – and less – than they bargained for.

The play scores some hits, not least about how dismally circuitous debates about equality have been since the 1970s. Yet as an analysis of gender relations, The Mistress Contract is thin and often – as in its hint that all relationships are a form of contract – clunkingly obvious. Somewhat like She and He, marooned in the glass bubble of their modish Californian hideaway, it feels imprisoned rather than liberated by the concepts it attempts to explore; it’s not helped by Vicky Featherstone’s inert direction, which gives this two-hander the flavour of an extended seminar rather than a flesh-and-blood relationship. “This isn’t A Doll’s House,” She exclaims angrily at one point. On that, I wouldn’t disagree.

“1984” runs until 29 March
“The Mistress Contract” runs until 22 March