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1984: How theatre is learning from cinema by using live video

Cinema has never suffered from anxiety about the "unseen off-screen". Three new London plays, Good People, Let the Right One In and 1984, are adapting to new ways of presenting what is happening off-stage.

The cast of 1984.
The cast of 1984, which uses off-stage footage of Winston and Julia's secret tryst. Photograph: Tristram Kenton.

The most innovative and resonant aspect of the production of 1984 which has just transferred from the Almeida to the Playhouse Theatre is its use of a live video feed to relay off-stage action to the audience. Cinema has no trouble evoking a world that exists beyond the borders of the film frame. Tom Sutcliffe, in his book Watching, describes the moment when the vast spacecraft whooshes into view during the opening shot of Star Wars as the revelation of the “unseen off-screen”.

Most theatre struggles in my experience to conjure an equivalent sense of expanse. The revolving set in the current production of Good People (another transfer to the West End—from the Hampstead Theatre to the Noel Coward Theatre) does it nicely, suggesting the intrinsic link between disparate locations and creating a nice fluidity between them. The main performer (Imelda Staunton) exits through the doorway of one set and enters another during each revolution. It’s as though she is strolling through the pages of a pop-up book. And the stage adaptation of Let the Right One In (currently playing at the Apollo) uses its permanent set of silver birches that reach beyond the top of the proscenium and out of sight to evoke the enormity of the forest where some of the action takes place.

None of this generates quite the frisson of the video feed in 1984. It has a practical function within the story: it is used to follow what happens between Winston and Julia during their trysts in a back-room supposedly out of view of Big Brother. It also transforms us into voyeurs, perhaps even representatives of the Party. This idea is pushed to extremes in the torture sequence at the end of the play, when Winston screams out at us in the (now semi-lit) auditorium, imploring us to intervene.

It can be a risky move incorporating video into a theatre production; it sometimes feels to me rather as if a barista were to use instant coffee in the preparation of your morning Americano. (The feeling being: if I wanted it done that way, I could have stayed at home and whipped it up myself.) The videos featuring Tamsin Grieg and the late Roger Lloyd-Pack that bookended the electrifying production of The Trojan Women at the Gate at the end of 2012 were the weakest parts of that show, since they took us out of the bleak hospital room to which the rest of the play was confined. We may not have wished to be in that place of horror and torment, but neither did we want the hard-won claustrophobic atmosphere to be squandered once established.

There was an element of that anxiety when the use of video made its first appearance in 1984. We are left staring at a vacated set while a screen just above it reveals what is happening out of sight. It is only natural to wonder whether we are seeing a live broadcast or something pre-recorded. We are so suspicious in the post-Ant-and-Dec phone-in scandal era that we won’t take anything at face value; if Bear Grylls can stay in a hotel when we think he’s roughing it in the woods, what hope for authenticity in our entertainment world?

But once we are satisfied that we are witnessing live interaction between Winston and Julia, the use of video takes on an expansive power. We become gradually aware that the reach of the play extends beyond that which we can see on the stage or touch. The production is always cognisant of the breadth of Orwell’s novel: you can see that in the ingenious decision to dramatise within the play the novel’s appendix, so that we are actually privy to discussions of Winston’s writings that take place after the action of the text. The use of video makes that physical. It tells us implicitly that the meaning and significance of the play does not stop at the edge of the stage. It goes on.

1984 is at the Playhouse Theatre until 19 July. Good People is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 14 June. Let the Right One In is at the Apollo Theatre until 27 September.

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