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Theatre in Review: 1984 (Hudson Theatre)

Tom Sturridge, Reed Birney. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

"If you leave your seat for any reason during the performance, you will not be permitted to return." So says the insert in Playbills currently being handed out at the Hudson Theatre; at the performance I attended, the usher offered a similar warning. All this would appear to be the latest maneuver in a campaign to position the new stage version of George Orwell's novel as the biggest Broadway shocker since Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat, which had audiences screaming in 1920. You've probably seen the news stories about audience members at 1984, fainting, vomiting, and fleeing the theatre. (I have heard eyewitness accounts of the fleeing part.) You may also have heard that the show's producers, Sonia Friedman and Scott Rudin, have restricted attendees to those over the age of thirteen. Before attending 1984, it all seemed like an old-fashioned William Castle-style publicity blitz. Now that I've been, I see management's point: This production is like an ice pick aimed at one's nervous system.

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, who wrote and directed, had their work cut out for them: Orwell's novel embeds a relatively brief narrative inside astonishingly vivid passages detailing life in Oceania, a totalitarian state founded on the principles of "IngSoc," or English socialism. It's a dreary, crumbling world, locked in perpetual war with Eastasia (Or is it Eurasia? It constantly changes) where two-way "telescreens" in every home spew floods of propaganda while searching out traitors; grade-schoolers are trained to pry on their parents; dissenters are made into "unpersons" and "vaporized;" and the only form of solace is bitter, foul-tasting Victory Gin. These passages are eerily seductive, thanks to the author's remarkable powers of description, but they aren't very dramatic. Neither is Orwell's most Satanic invention, "Newspeak," an invented language designed to reduce all communications to a handful of words stripped of any intellectual and/or spiritual connotations: In Newspeak, for example, one cannot be a free person, the master of one's own fate, but a bed can be free of vermin.

The authors ingeniously meet this challenge by using lighting, sound, and video effects to create the world as seen through the eyes of Winston Smith, Orwell's protagonist, following him through his brief moment of rebellion, a stab at a love affair, and, finally, the brainwashing process that leaves him numb, neutered, yet another member of the walking dead. Scenes end in bursts of blinder cues and nerve-shattering sound effects, only to begin again, after brief blackouts. A scene set in the present may suddenly bleed into a scene from Winston's past or a moment of fantasy that allows him a bit of escape from his killing present. Voiceover effects stand in for Orwell's omniscient narrator; Julia, the heroine, as she gives Winston directions to their trysting place; and an unseen authority, interrupting the lovers and informing them of their arrest. Enormous projections announce the "Two-Minute Hate," a daily ritual in which everyone is commanded to hurl verbal abuse at the image of an enemy of the state. Projections also bring to life Winston's job at the Ministry of Truth, reshaping the historical record; we see him deleting any reference to a new unperson, rendering him nonexistent. In the production's boldest gambit, the room, in the back of a junk store, where Winston and Julia meet, is an offstage location, rendered on video; you would be forgiven for thinking that these scenes are entirely pre-recorded -- until the lovers are arrested and the set undergoes a total transformation, revealing that Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde have been performing live even when seen only on camera.

A beanpole with a terrible bowl cut -- it looks like it was acquired in prison -- and a nervous, hesitant affect that hints at turmoil underneath, Sturridge is a fine Winston; he's younger than Orwell's character, but, from the moment we initially encounter him, furtively committing his first "thoughtcrime" to paper -- the stress of the event underlined by the nosebleed that follows -- the actor powerfully conveys his character's halting steps toward a state of intellectual revolt. Later, arrested and consigned to the dreaded Room 101, where prisoners are made to face their most primal fears, Sturridge is subjected to a level of abuse that, I suspect, would cause many actors to balk. (At moments like these, 1984, which apparently has been brought to Broadway as a warning against the Trump Administration's own particular form of Newspeak, seems to be an equally mordant assault on America's all-too-recent tolerance of torture.) Actors are often described as giving "committed" performances; Sturridge's work here takes that virtue to new extremes. When, having been subjected to appalling pain, Winston howls in agony, "How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes?", it's all one can do to keep from turning away.

Olivia Wilde's Julia is as tough and pragmatic as Orwell wrote her, and equally oblivious to the bigger picture; her devotion is to Winston, not to any uprising, but she nevertheless brings a cleansing blast of common sense with each appearance, and when she disappears, she is very much missed. The casting coup of the production, however, is Reed Birney, as O'Brien, the party functionary who appears to indoctrinate Winston and Julia into a revolutionary cell that is eventually revealed to be an elaborate ruse to trap thought criminals. The bland, Midwestern manner that informed Birney's work in The Humans and Man from Nebraska is made to seem the distillation of pure evil as O'Brien patiently, painstakingly tears Winston's soul apart, refashioning it to suit the purposes of the state. (This scene contains the plot device that is all but guaranteed to keep you up at night. I won't describe it, but if you've read the novel, you know what I'm referring to.) "I'm going to make you perfect," Birney says, in a line reading that is all the more terrifying for its soothing delivery.

As noted earlier, all the design elements make important contributions, working together to remarkably unified effect. Chloe Lamford places the action in a faintly institutional wood-paneled interior -- it could be a club room -- that stands in effectively for Winston's workplace, his apartment, a cafeteria, and O'Brien's home, among other locations; she also has provided the interior for Winston and Julia's back room love nest, which is revealed only when the set undergoes a shocking transformation, deconstructing and being replaced by the stark white walls of Room 101. (Lamford also outfits the characters in clothing that disturbingly suggests that the world of Oceania may not be as far off as we would like to think.) Natasha Chivers' lighting includes those eye-searing blasts of white light, carefully wrought sidelight looks, and a creepily bright wash for the torture scenes, in addition to shadow effects and a chase sequence that suggests the rush of a passing train. Tim Reid's videos alternate between overpowering graphics -- Lamford has built an enormous projection screen, spanning the width of the stage, into the upstage wall -- and fairly lengthy sequences focusing on Winston and Julia's private encounters. Tom Gibbons' sound design is a complex blend of reinforced voices, voiceovers, and effects, many of them designed to disorient; it is an unusually accomplished piece of work.

This 1984, a joint creation of the production company Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse, has arrived on Broadway via London's Almeida Theatre and the West End; it might not have happened but for the surge of popularity enjoyed by Orwell's novel following the election of President Trump. Although the new American reality hardly rises to the level of life in Oceania, the habit of mendacity practiced by the president and his entourage often seems positively Orwellian. It's our bad luck that this production suddenly seems so relevant, but there's an element of good fortune in the skill -- and ferocious moral authority -- with which it is delivered. -- David Barbour

(11 July 2017)

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