Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell at Hudson Theatre

By Jonathan Spira on 5 July 2017
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What is truth? If you have pondered this question recently, in an age of alternative facts, you need look no further back than to 1948 when George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel, “1984.”

More prescient than one might have realized at the dawn of the Cold War, the novel introduced vocabulary and concepts such as Big Brother, doublethink thoughtcrime, telescreen, and of course alternative facts, the latter having gained a newfound notoriety after a presidential advisor on a television interview used it. These very phrases, as chilling as they were when you read the novel, are now spoken and projected on stage with equal if not greater effect.

Newspeak was the language that would replace standard English in the story, part of the Oceania superstate’s effort to eliminate personal thought. Doublethink, Orwell explained, “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” It’s not surprising that 2017 brought the return of the novel to the bestseller list.

The stage adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, which arrives on Broadway after three successful West End runs and several international tours, couldn’t have come at a more auspicious moment. It stars Tom Sturridge as Winston Smith, the Everyman rebelling against Big Brother, and Olivia Wilde as Julia, a fellow party member with whom he has a proscribed affair.

Winston’s job, to revise history to reflect ever-changing government positions, includes the need to “unperson” any references to individuals who have fallen out of favor with the elite Inner Party. (Winston is a mere member of the Outer Party, which is nonetheless an elite station in life compared to the rest of the citizenry.)

The play’s stagecraft never fails to impress. We meet Winston as he makes entries in his secret diary – his words are projected onto large (tele)screens above the stage – while that very same diary is being debated and analyzed decades after the fact by a book club ca. 2050. This discussion comes from Orwell’s appendix to the novel, a discussion of the post-1984 world, a far less repressive one that came into existence decades later.

Much of the play takes place in a nondescript room that could be anywhere. Every aspect of Chloe Lamford’s set, including the harrowing sound effects by Tom Gibbons that are sure to creep out the theatergoer, make the audience wince. The play follows the pair as they find a secret place in the woods for a romantic tryst, or set up household in a supposedly private room (off stage but projected to the audience because Big Brother is, of course, always watching, and in a meeting with an Inner Party apparatchik cum resistance leader played brilliantly by Tony winner Reed Birney, who recruits the pair into the Brotherhood.

The private room and the idea of the Brotherhood and resistance keep Winston and his belief in a better world alive.

But don’t let this fool you. “1984” can hold its own against any horror movie: there’s even a creepy little girl repeatedly singing an equally creepy nursery rhyme.

When the setting moves to the infamous white-walled Ministry of Love, Room 101, however, all bets are off. Room 101 is where prisoners face their worst fears, which, for Winston, we learnt early on, would be rats. The transformation of O’Brien, who cheerily tortures Winston starting with the removal of his fingertips and teeth, from a wine-drinking resistance leader to a Dick Cheney-like monster, is more than just a little discomforting. Just to make a point, the play’s runtime is also 101 minutes.

Unlike several other recent plays, which relied as much on a blond wig as on the play’s content to deliver a rather jolting message about current affairs, the text of “1984” speaks for itself.

The truth, just like the play, is discomforting and revealing. Orwell’s words are telling: “The people will not revolt,” O’Brien tells no one in particular. “They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s really happening.”

THE DETAILS

1984
Hudson Theatre
139-141 W 44th Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
Runtime: 101 minutes
www.thehudsonbroadway.com

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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