It would seem just the right timing for the first adaptation on a Broadway stage of “1984,” George Orwell’s chilling 1949 novel of a future totalitarian society. The book long has been so thoroughly lodged in popular consciousness that it gave rise to the word Orwellian, but it shot to the top of bestseller lists this year with the inauguration of Donald Trump and the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as real-world synonyms for Orwell’s fictional vocabulary of “Doublethink,” “Newspeak,” and “Thoughtcrime.”
The stage version as written and directed by British theater stars Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan is certainly an intense and disorienting experience, with a fine cast featuring a spot-on Reed Birney, a stirring Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde in a memorable Broadway debut; as well as some attention-grabbing stagecraft executed with technically impressive precision. But Icke and Macmillan avoid the kind of explicitly anti-Trump commentary that we’re getting used to on the stage (i.e. Building the Wall; Julius Caesar at the Public.) And for all the ample reminders in “1984” the play of why “1984” the novel is so unsettling, fans of the horror movie genre might find more to appreciate here than those theatergoers who have come to the Hudson Theater expecting some special intellectual, emotional or contemporary political illumination of George Orwell’s dystopian novel.
The basic plot is more or less intact. We are introduced to Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), bureaucrat at the Ministry of Truth, which means he makes up lies all day, rewriting history and erasing from all records any once-honored heroes who have fallen out of favor with “Big Brother,” the leader who may or may not actually exist. Secretly, however, Winston rebels. He does this first by starting a diary, and then by falling in love with a waitress named Julia (Olivia Wilde.)
The scenes between Winston and Julia in their hideaway in an antique shop are the most engaging in the production – in part, ironically, because we see them in close-up on a large screen. (The actors are somewhere off-stage performing in front of a camera.) The creative team’s use of this livestreaming turns out to be one of the cleverest of the sly ways they make the audience realize how unreliable the reality in the play is, and how complicit we are in the constant stream of betrayals.
Yet the disorientation that is threaded throughout the production is too often indistinguishable from confusion. Icke and Macmillan have added a framing device of a group of characters talking about Winston’s diary (which may be the same as the book “1984”) in what is apparently the year 2050 (which, it might be worth pointing out, is 33 years in the future, just as the year 1984 is 33 years in the past.) These future characters pop in and out of the play in the beginning and the end and apparently in the middle, portrayed by the same actors who are Winston’s betrayers and torturers in 1984 or the present-day (it’s never quite clear what era we’re in.)
Sure, along the way, we get exposed to some of the alarming details of the society in which they live. We overhear a co-worker of Winston’s praising Newspeak as the only language “whose vocabulary gets smaller every year… In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
We learn the definition of Doublethink – “to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality one denies.”
We even unavoidably see parallels with current reality, thanks to such lines of dialogue as: “The people are not going to revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s really happening.”
But such lines are drowned out and undermined by the startling bursts of noise, blinding lights, and rapid-fire video projections that dominate this theatrical experience.
The final third of “1984” takes the sensory assault a step further, combining the startling effects with scenes of Winston’s torture in Room 101 at the Ministry of Love. The torturers, cloaked anonymously in white hazmat suits, crowd around Winston…blackout…lightning flash…rapid-fire video projections….and Winston is once again visible, in agony, spurting blood. A pitch-perfect Reed Birney looks as avuncular and sounds as reasonable and reassuring as Vice President Mike Pence, while overseeing Winston’s torture.
These are surely the scenes that reportedly caused as many as four theatergoers in a single night to faint, and that led to the recent announcement that nobody under 13 years of age (“born after 2004″) would be admitted to the show. These scenes take up about 30 minutes in a show that’s listed as having a running time of 101 minutes – a sly allusion to Room 101, and thus (intentionally or not) an indication of the priority placed on the theatrics of horror at the expense of the drama of political repression. It’s almost as if “1984’ the play is reflecting the values of the society it depicts – sensation over clarity, screens over thought.
Based on the novel by George Orwell, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Sets and costumes, Chloe Lamford; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Tom Gibbons; videos, Tim Reid;
Cast Reed Birney, Olivia Wilde,Tom Sturridge, Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louis, Nick Mills, Michael Potts and Cara Seymour
Running time: 101 minutes, with no intermission.
1984 is scheduled to run through October 8, 2017