New York City Theater
Maybe it’s all too true. Maybe not. Big Brother Is Watching You; Freedom Is Slavery; War Is Peace; Ignorance Is Strength. The slogans are relentless and familiar, ambiguous and possibly fake. This could be only “1984,” George Orwell’s dystopian novel, filtered through current events by adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan.
A remote blip on the battle between fascism and democracy, it is, of course, also a warning, “a text which occupies a unique place in our collective subconscious.” When it speaks about demolishing “the whole notion of objective truth, of there being one set true reality,” you can’t help but think of politicians who tout “alternative facts” (i.e. lies).
In this adaptation, the authors choose to include the novel’s appendix, an explanation of Newspeak, “the official language of Oceania,” where the action takes place. We’re introduced to scholars explicating the past when Big Brother ruled, a curiously literary and not terribly effective way of getting into the main action. Its purpose, according to the authors, is to make the reader doubt not only the “truth” of events but whether they actually did or did not happen.
The tale is of Winston Smith, secretly rebellious, in love with fellow traveler Julia. Undermined by O’Brien, who pretends to be on their side, Winston is, finally, tortured in a series of horrific scenes – with a previously comforting room giving way to white pristine walls. A rebuke to bloody terrors within, echoes of Abu Ghraib bore into the skull, sending several theatergoers fleeing up the aisles.
Throughout, scenes are repeated, as if in search of the truth. Another search, for a hazy past, is the British children’s rhyme, “‘Oranges and lemons,’ say the bells of St. Clement’s.” Contrarily, the actors speak with American accents.
Projections and blinding lighting are unsettling, yet the evening is not really as frightening as it ought to be. Part of the reason is the mushy performance by Tom Sturridge as Winston. By the torture scenes, we’re too objective to care very much about his fate, beyond shock value.
The cast is game. Olivia Wilde is sensuous and mysterious as the conflicted Julia. Reed Birney is brilliant as O’Brien, the quietly menacing functionary. His calm declaration that “Reality exists only in the mind, and nowhere else” chills the bones.
Chloe Lamford’s scenic and costume designs, Natasha Chivers’ lighting, Tim Reid’s projections and Tom Gibbons’ sound design create an atmosphere of dread. As directed by Icke and Macmillan, “1984” is intriguingly theatrical, a warning that hate is universal, love is personal and lies are what divide the two.
--David A. Rosenberg
July 30, 2017