The new adaptation of 1984 by Headlong and the Nottingham Playhouse has received rapturous reviews – not least from us – but time is running out if you’re going to catch the play in Liverpool. Co-adaptor Robert Icke tells us about Gazza, why it’s all about the text, and what it’s all got to do with honey…
SS: At the press night for The Alchemist last year you mentioned that you’d been up at night reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Was this production a direct result?
Robert Icke: Yes! I was reading it because I was writing an application to the estate to get the rights. To see if it were workable and how I might stage it.
SS: Arguably the text has remained as relevant since it was published as it is today, but recent events seem to throw it into a particular light. Serendipity?
RI: You’re always looking at texts such as Shakespeare and Ibsen – the kind that are recognisably part of a our cultural make-up – and their orbit round where we are now. Does it feel relevant? For instance, any play that mentions Islam at the moment feels relevant. Othello, for example, feels very on point.
1984 came into really close orbit after Duncan Macmillan and I had started to write it and it felt very relevant; the Bradley Manning confession felt very Big Brother – did he really mean it? He was actually sentenced while we were putting the show together.
However it’s a mistake to try to fire those references throughout the show. You want people to be able to join the dots but you’re in danger of becoming a hostage to time. If you’d written a play about Raoul Moat and Gazza turning up with a bucket of chicken – this incredibly bizarre situation – it would just feel irrelevant now.
SS: Is this a radical production?
RI: Etymologically, radical means going back to roots. I’m very faithful to the text itself and trying to formally represent the brilliance of the Orwell novel. I’m interested in the way that expectations differ in the audience.
I’m not interested in the kind of iconography you might expect from a production of Nineteen-Eighty-Four. You’re trying to mainline what the essence of the novel is – it really does make you feel like you’ve been run over and it has this horrible visceral punch.
A metaphor I use is like describing the experience of what it’s like to taste honey. You can describe the jar and colour and viscosity – or you can make something that tastes like honey.
SS: Does that create problems with some audiences?
RI: People do object to changes – they have a very literal idea of the text. But they’ve only read the surface of the novel – or they’re going off an impression of it. I was actually accosted after my production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a woman who accused me of updating the text. I hadn’t! She didn’t want to be entertained; she wanted to be politely bored.
It’s interesting to clear away the preconceptions. I hope that, whether people are familiar with the story or not, they’ll take something different away from seeing this production.
SS: Which adaptations did you watch?
RI: I deliberately didn’t watch any of them. The skin of the play, the cultural perception of it very rarely has much to do with what’s on the page.
Talking about it – and with the tour under way – I want to read the novel again now. I’ve already read it about 20 times but even late in the day you spot new bits to it.
Until 2 November