Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

American Repertory Theater
Review by Nancy Grossman

Also see Josh's recent review of Richard II and Nancy's review of An Octoroon

The Cast
Photo by Ben Gibbs
George Orwell's "1984" is one of the scariest novels I've ever read. Of course, when I read it, I was a sheltered, suburban teenager growing up in the Cold War era, sometime between "duck and cover" and the recommendation to apply plastic sheeting with duct tape to seal doors and windows as the government's idea of home security measures. Its concepts of Big Brother, Thought Police, and Newspeak stoked fears of a totalitarian enemy regime (read: Communism) that hung in the air in those days, when nuclear war loomed as the threat that terrorism represents today. American Repertory Theater, in association with U.K. companies Headlong, Almeida Theatre, and Nottingham Playhouse, hosts the world tour of a new adaptation of 1984 by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. The play is extremely timely and shows that Orwell's prescient message has lost none of its power, especially in the context of the erosion of our civil liabilities, the lack of privacy (voluntary or involuntary), and the fascist overtones of the campaigns of certain candidates for political office.

This production is a stunning example of the ability of live theater to immerse an audience in the story, to make them feel what the characters feel, and to leave them thinking about what it all means. The synergy between the design elements and the performances creates the perfect dramatic tension, virtually from the opening moment of the play with the sound of a clock chiming thirteen bells. The set (Chloe Lamford) is stark, with an upstage wall interrupted by a center door and a row of large windows offering a view of a corridor, built-in bookshelves on either side wall, a few pieces of wooden furniture, and a large projection screen above the rear wall that spans the width of the stage. The lighting (Natasha Chivers) conveys mystery and danger when the set is cloaked in shadows, suddenly plunges into darkness, or is bathed in bright white flashes. The soundscape (Tom Gibbons) includes alarms and various recorded announcements, all conspiring to instill anxiety.

Matthew Spencer (Winston) and Hara Yannas (Julia) masterfully project their joint rebelliousness and paranoia, and Tim Dutton (O'Brien) is chilling as the official whose loyalties are questionable. The rest of the ensemble (Simon Coates, Stephen Fewell, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Ben Porter, Mandi Symonds) effectively portray one-note characters, mostly stripped of their personalities by the State. The overhead screen figures prominently as the scenes between Winston and Julia in a secluded off-stage room are shown to us as if through a hidden camera (Tim Reid, video). There is a degree of poignancy in viewing the couple experiencing a sense of freedom, believing that this is one space that escapes the watchful eye of Big Brother. As they commit a variety of forbidden acts—eat rationed foods, read, think, and fall into bed together—there is a creeping awareness that the audience has become the watcher. Discomfiting as that may be, the staging of the cruelty inflicted upon them by Big Brother's forces in the white room at the Ministry of Love makes the audience complicit in the punishment. We sit and watch, as passersby do at the sight of a highway accident. We may feel manipulated, but ultimately we are responsible for our actions.

Under the artistic direction of Diane Paulus, the A.R.T. has increasingly found ways to make theater immersive for its audience. As the directors of their adaptation, Icke and Macmillan make 1984 a visceral as well as an intellectual experience that captures the audience and holds it in a tight grip. The surveillance and mind control that are practiced on the characters in the play have connotations that are both frightening and familiar. It is tempting to say that it is only fiction, but we ignore it at our own peril.

1984, performances through March 6, 2016, presented by American Repertory Theater in association with Headlong, Almeida Theatre, and Nottingham Playhouse, at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or

Written by George Orwell, Adapted and Directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan; Design, Chloe Lamford; Lighting, Natasha Chivers; Sound, Tom Gibbons; Video, Tim Reid; Production Stage Manager, Taylor Brennan

Cast (in alphabetical order): Simon Coates, Tim Dutton, Stephen Fewell, Faye Giordano, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Addison Oken, Ben Porter, Matthew Spencer, Mandi Symonds, Hara Yannas

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