Taking a classic work of fiction and transforming it into an absorbing, dramatic piece of theater is a difficult assignment. This is the case with 1984, the stage adaption of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, now appearing on Broadway. The play is a series of staccato-like scenes from the book which, unless one has recently read the work, comes across as jumbled, incomplete, and hard to follow.
For a novel that was written in 1948, the book is frighteningly and eerily prescient of today’s political times. The terminology created by Orwell, such as Big Brother, Fake News, and Thought Police, have become part of our common vernacular. The lack of individual privacy, as exhibited by the omnipresent telescreens, is almost clairvoyant. Yet, the terror and grimness from the book has not fully translated into the play, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. The latter half of the production, when the two lovers have been captured and brought to the terrifying torture space, Room 101, is more gruesome and unnerving rather than bleak and foreboding.
The stage production is structured, initially and then periodically, as a series of flashbacks from the future. The individuals (scientists? ordinary citizens?) hypothesize about the entries in a diary that the protagonist Winston Smith has penned. However, the main thrust of the story focuses on Smith, a member of the Party who day-in and day-out rewrites Party history. He secretly despises the Party, pretending among his colleagues and acquaintances that he is a loyalist. He soon becomes involved with Julia, a young Party woman who also loathes the central leadership. They secretly meet for passionate rendezvouses, while at work remaining stoic and impassive towards each other. Life trudges along until both are suddenly rounded up in a thought-to-be secluded apartment by the Thought Police. They are brutalized mercilessly, even though we just witness what happens to Winston. The interrogations are led by the ministry official O’Brien, who Winston and Julia thought were part of the conspiracy against the Party. O’Brien wants to “cure” the low-level bureaucrat of his “misguided” hatred of the Party. In the end, even as he tries to hold on to his humanity and love for Julia, Winston is broken, returning to society successfully re-educated, a shell of his former self, his love for Julia obliterated.
While not looking for a page by page retelling of the novel, the show seems like a Sparks Note recitation. The plot and characters are sketchy and fragmentary, which robs the viewer of the complexity and power of what Orwell authored. The intensity is ratcheted up during the rehabilitation (torture) segment. Portions of it can be extreme and hard to witness as demonstrated by some audience members leaving their seats.
As directors, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan convey the blandness of the lives of the denizens of Oceania, one of the three superstates that rule the world. This banality, coupled with a strict adherence to Party values, effectively communicates a depressing and cheerless existence. Their significant use of television monitors, or telescreens, in the production strongly transmits the notion of zero privacy, no matter where or when the setting. The point of the show where Winston and Julia are captured and Winston is continually punished and tormented is harrowing, but the scenes do channel the essence of the novel.
The creative team of Scenic Designer Chloe Lamford, Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers, Video Designer Tim Reid and, especially, Sound Designer Tom Gibbons add a sonic, other worldly element that enhance the production.
The three main cast members—Tom Sturridge as Winston, Olivia Wilde as Julia, and Reed Birney as O’Brien—give absorbing and penetrating performances. Sturridge embues his character with a lackluster sheen, but also with an undercurrent of rage and, towards the end, an inner strength that is ultimately wiped clean. Ms. Wilde is animated and purposeful. Her defiance comes across as less muted then her companion. Mr. Birney is chilling as the reserved, smooth-talking, and matter-of-fact Party VIP. He is downright terrifying with his doublethink and fanatical obedience to Party doctrine.
1984, an overall disappointing production of the Orwellian classic at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre.