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1984 | Hackney Town Hall

Immersive is something of a buzzword in theatre at the moment, and there is much talk about what makes a production truly immersive. But it is safe to say that Adam Taub’s adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 cannot be accused of falling short on immersive elements. From the moment audience members step through the doors of Hackney Town Hall and are greeted by stony-faced employees of the Ministry of Truth in identikit boilersuits, they are transformed from observers to participants, something the performers take pains to remind them of throughout the production. 

Directed by Richard Hahlo and Jem Wall, 1984 is the tale of Winston (Declan Rodgers), a low-ranking ministry employee who has become increasingly sceptical of the lies he is complicit in creating on behalf of the government. He begins an affair with Julia (Kit Reeve) but ultimately neither can escape the oppressive government of Oceania. In this framing, however, there is little in the way of buildup shown, either of Winston’s increasingly rebellious thoughts or of his and Julia’s blossoming relationship, making it more difficult to connect with the pair emotionally even as their lives spiral out of control. 

Jude Akuwudike’s ministry leader O’Brien is the character the audience is given most time with, as he outlines the regime, its history, and the brutal consequences of ‘thoughtcrime’, before demonstrating those consequences directly. Indeed Akuwudike is the standout performer, presenting an unnerving portrait of a ruthless yet charismatic politician who will resonate just as much with audiences now as when 1984 was originally written. Rodgers is at his best in later scenes as he portrays Winston’s unravelling mind, while Reeve carries much of the chemistry between the pair in a love scene set in ‘the observation room.’

The main cast are supported by an ensemble of navy-boilersuited ministry employees, who stick viciously to character as they ferry the audience around the venue and are also given a moment in the spotlight in a thoroughly creepy rendition of the Oceania national anthem which guarantees to ruin ‘Que Sera Sera’ for at least some of the audience.

This is by no means a musical, but music is important to setting the scene, from the jazz singer welcoming you to the bar in the pre-show (one of a rotating trio of Bryony Purdue, Ivy Knights and Louise Messenger) to the repeated refrains of Oranges and Lemons and the Oceania anthem. Movement is also incredibly important to the piece, both in the enigmatic movements of the cast, orchestrated by movement director Amalia Vitale, and in the movement of the audience around the venue to follow the plot.

The stunning venue of Hackney Town Hall provides a perfect setting for a performance set in a government ministry, with the council chamber and the glass lift in the inner courtyard used to particular effect. However, the venue does throw up some challenges in the observation room scene, where full enjoyment is dependent on your ability to move on from the previous room quickly in order to get a good view.

However, this scene is one of the best for showing off sound and lighting design from Thor McIntyre-Burnie and Jonathan Simpson respectively, with sound and lighting choices transporting you fully to the setting at crucial moments. Video footage used to present the history of Oceania and the backstory of Winston and Julia’s relationship is also effective, although as previously mentioned insufficient time is devoted to the latter plot.

All in all this is an ambitious production which likely needs more than the allotted 75 minutes in order to fully develop its plot and make the audience engage with the central characters as much as with the setting. A gripping immersive experience which will get you thinking about the nature of government and media and the decisions you might make in a dystopian future, 1984 would truly shine if given the space to develop in this way.

1984 runs at Hackney Town Hall until 17 December. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


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