WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
1984 by George Orwell
With Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on the bestseller list, and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here being performed as play around the country, it was only a matter of time before a dramatization of 1984, George Orwell’s seminal novel of a totalitarian world much like the Soviet Union, would appear in New York. The current production, the second tenant of Broadway’s newly renovated Hudson Theatre, is a new production of co-writers/co-directors Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s British adaptation first seen in London in 2013 and now slightly Americanized for New York.
You may recall that Orwell’s book gave us the terms Big Brother, Newspeak, doublethink, thought crime, telescreen, government agencies with names like Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Love, Ministry of Peace, etc. which mean exactly the opposite of what they are called, and a world in which 2% of the population rules the rest of humanity. Written in 1948 and based mainly on what Orwell knew to be happening in Stalinist USSR, the book today is more frightening now than when it was published as everything in it has come to pass somewhere in the world, and not the least in Trump’s America. Long before Trump’s fake news and Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts, Orwell described a world that knew no other way of life.
Icke and Macmillan’s version is tricked up with much multimedia, sound and lights, and disorientation. Faithful to the book, it claims to be the first adaptation to include Orwell’s appendix supposedly written years after the events of the novel. The first third of the play which mixes past, present and future would be very hard to follow for someone who has not read the book. For two-thirds of the play, Chloe Lamford’s set is a wood paneled library or reading room which must make do for an office cubicle, an office cafeteria, an antique shop, a meeting room, a path through a forest, and the home of the hero, Winston Smith. The last third of the play which depicts the reeducation of Winston, i.e. torture and brainwashing, is very graphic and as such difficult to sit through; the book’s description, however, which drew a curtain over the actual violence made it seem like it went on for months or years.
For those who are unfamiliar with the book, it concerns the daily life of a 39- year-old man, Winston Smith, who lives in a repressive totalitarian regime (somewhere in the Northeast in this adaptation) and works for the Ministry of Truth deleting and rewriting records of people who the regime has eliminated. Sex is outlawed except for procreation, there are shortages of all items, Oceania’s war with Eastasia (one of the three world political blocks) has gone on for years, and life is perpetually drab for all except those who are high up in the Party. Telescreens on the walls of every room watch everyone’s actions (Big Brother Is Watching!) and can see what everyone is doing. Periodically, two minutes of HATE sessions get everyone all riled up about the enemies of the state.
Winston accidentally finds evidence that the people are all being lied to and comes to believe that a secret underground society called The Brotherhood working against the Party really does exist. Keeping a diary (which is dangerous if the Thought Police catch on), Winston begins to write down his subversive thoughts. He comes to believe that a girl he passes in the corridors of his office building is on to him, but it turns out that Julia (an excellent party member) is in love with him and arranges an assignation.
When he stumbles on an antique shop with forbidden items from the past, he is told by the proprietor, Carrington, that he has a back room to rent (originally his master bedroom) which has no telescreen. Winston and Julia surreptitiously meet there to indulge in their affair but agree that “We are the Dead” as they will be eliminated when their clandestine relationship is discovered. Winston comes to believe that a supervisor at work, O’Brien, is also a subversive and working for The Brotherhood. When O’Brien gives him an open invitation to visit him, Winston and Julia take their eventual path towards their doom.
The stage adaptation has added a prologue which appears to take place in a future set sometime after 2050. Big Brother and The Party are gone, and a group of people have gathered to read the diary that Winton wrote back in 1984. Time is blurred confusingly so that we see Winston begin it and then witness various scenes from his life. The top half of the stage is a huge telescreen which is used both for close-ups like the writing in the diary as well as new bulletins from the Party and Big Brother. When Winston and Julia rent Carrington’s room, we see them on the screen as if we are watching a video. We later discover that their scenes have been taking place in a room behind the library set that we can see.
While Winston in the novel is 39 and weary from the many years of the austere life he has been living, British stage and screen star Tom Sturridge who plays him looks years younger, though he is actually 32. The play makes him a rebel from the time we meet him rather than a man who slowly comes to feel that he has been lied to enough and that he can’t go on anymore in the way that he has been. Sturridge’s Winston seems traumatized from the moment we first see him as if he has already undergone brainwashing – or that all time in the story has been conflated, his end being in his beginning.
Film and television star Olivia Wilde’s Julia is impassioned but we never understand enough of her backstory to know where she is coming from. As O’Brien, the Party official, Reed Birney (last year’s Tony Award winner for his role in The Humans) is avuncular and emotionless as the supervisor who may or may not be working for the resistance.
The other actors play multiple roles but have one main role each: Wayne Duvall as Winston’s pompous neighbor and coworker Parsons, Cara Seymour as his browbeaten wife, Michael Potts as the antique dealer who appears to offer Winston an alternative, Nick Mills as a quiet colleague of both Parsons and Winston, and Carl Hendrick Louis as O’Brien’s manservant who is also more than he appears to be.
The direction by Icke and Macmillan is fast-paced, almost in a breathless fashion until the gruesome torture scenes when time seems to slow down. Lamford’s set design for the library room is rather distracting for the first two-thirds of the play where it must stand in for so many places. However, the set design and lighting by Natasha Chivers for the torture chambers in the basement of the Ministry of Love are chilling. Lamford’s costumes are very nondescript, without suggesting a society in which your uniform defines your place in society. Tim Reid’s video design is at times effective, at others badly draws attention to itself. Tom Gibbons’ sound design is the most effective part of the production.
The new Broadway version of Orwell’s 1984 demonstrates that the story is still relevant to our time even after 68 years, when the line between truth and lies is being blurred every day. However, by attempting to update the story and moving it into the future with a great deal of modern technology, the production dilutes the power of the original feeling of both resignation and claustrophobia. While there is a reference to Westchester, New York, in this US version of the script, the constant use of the old English nursery rhyme, “Oranges and Lemons,” and the continual mention of St. Clement Dane Church, suggest that the events of the play occur in the London area. As so often happens, the imagination is a much more powerful tool than reality and the book is scarier than the dramatization. However, it is not surprising that due to the painful nature of Winston’s torture scenes no one under 14 will be allowed to attend the play.
1984 (through October 8, 2017)
The Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre Procution
Hudson Theatre, 139-141 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 855-801-5876 or visit http://www.revisedtruth.com
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission