‘1984’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Picture this: fronting one 44th Street theatre, the Belasco, are billboards advertising The Terms of My Surrender, Michael Moore’s upcoming one-man war against our 45th president. And right next door, at the recently restored Hudson, are billboards inviting you to Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The juxtaposition of these shows speaks potently to the urgency of this moment in our political history.
Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation, a 2014 West End smash hit that’s also played on various international stages, was written before Donald J. Trump became president; that, though, doesn’t make its themes of life under a totalitarian regime ruled by an all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother any the less relevant, as proved by the huge jump in sales of Orwell’s book after Trump was elected.
While Orwell’s writing can be appropriated to argue against left-wing excesses, like attempts to suppress unpopular speech on American campuses, it’s difficult not to note how much more closely his ideas mirror our Trumpian universe. To cite a recent example, Trump’s tweeting a video of himself wrestling to the ground someone with a CNN label placed over his face. Take that, Free Press!
Some Orwellian themes, like incessant war, government surveillance, or even the acceptance of torture (if not so blatantly as by Trump), reflect policies that spread across presidents and party lines. Others, though, especially the novel’s depiction of a demagogic world that aligns what Kellyanne Conway called “alternate facts” (what Orwell termed “doublethink”) with objective truth and scientific fact, seem particularly pertinent. In 1984 if the state says 2+2=5 you’d better agree if you want to keep your fingertips.
Icke and Macmillan compress Orwell’s book into 101 briskly paced, intermissionless minutes, telling the story of Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), a citizen of Oceania. Winston’s job as an editor at the Ministry of Truth is to use the language of Newspeak to rewrite/revise published history, or “unperson” those whose existence must forever be eliminated.
The focus is on Winston’s heroic bid to challenge the oppressive, authoritarian, thought-controlling system by writing a diary about it. The plot covers his clandestine love affair with Julia (Olivia Wilde), his ultimate capture, and the brutal torture inflicted on him by the deceptively friendly O’Brien (Reed Birney), designed to force Winston to accept as truth whatever the leadership says it is. Straightforward as this sounds, narrative clarity is not the play’s strong suit.
Icke and Macmillan’s script and staging (they also directed) choose to embody the material expressionistically; theatrical devices—including powerful blasts of sound (credit: Tom Gibbons) and light (credit: Natasha Chivers) that punctuate the action—and dreamlike sequences tend to dehumanize the characters and situations. This interferes with our ability to empathize with Winston’s dilemma, which increasingly seems more metaphorical than real.
For the first two-thirds of the play, the set (by Chloe Lamford, who also did the costumes), which serves (boringly) for multiple locales, is a wood-paneled room whose upstage wall is lined with translucent windows. Hovering above it is a large screen used for computer images and video scenes of Julia and Winston during their presumably secluded rendezvous in an antiques-filled storeroom. This live feed broadcasts much of their chemistry-challenged affair; surely, it’s to make us feel complicit as spies.
When Winston is arrested, there’s such a fusillade of overwhelming sounds—a helicopter’s whirring among them—searchlights, and SWAT team action it seems like using an elephant to crush a gnat. The effect of the stark white walls that drop in to create a torture chamber, Room 101, accentuated by the presence of robot-like torturers in white, hazmat-like coveralls, is striking but another example of theatrical overkill.
There’s a lot of blood in the controversial torture/brainwashing scene—audience members are reported to have vomited and fainted—but it’s tamer than expected. A couple in front of me even tittered—and no, it didn’t seem from nervousness—but their reaction was understandable. It’s like seeing Gloucester’s eyes gouged out in King Lear: how yucky can you get?
Wilde and Sturridge do their best but, given the limits on their expressivity in Orwell’s world, neither is particularly interesting. Reed Birney steals the play with his accustomed nice guy, rational demeanor as he carries out his horrendous duties in the name of the party.
Orwell’s novel is scary; the play based on it only mildly so, unless the physical stuff disturbs you. If you want to be scared, really scared about politics, trust reality every time.
139-141 W. 44th St., NYC
Through September 2
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com)