Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Shakespeare Theatre Company
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's review of The Flick

Many elements of George Orwell's 1949 novel "1984" have entered the public consciousness: the idea of an omniscient "Big Brother" watching one's every move; the "memory hole" where inconvenient ideas disappear; the fear that, without rigid control, one's own mind could commit a "thoughtcrime"; even the sense that people shouldn't think at all because the game is rigged. The unnerving stage adaptation of 1984 now at Washington's Lansburgh Theatre brings the audience deep into the world of the novel and its continuing relevance, using theatrical devices that probably would have thrilled Orwell.

Adaptors and directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, working with a powerful ensemble cast of nine, succeed in making the audience part of Orwell's vision of a dystopian future London, with moments of self-commentary that (like the appendix at the end of the novel) place the protagonist's journey in a larger context. The audience joins Winston Smith (Matthew Spencer), a worker in the Ministry of Truth who unblinkingly destroys evidence of people and events that could challenge the official narrative, as he begins to question his life and discovers love and rebellion with the outspoken Julia (Hara Yannas).

Orwell's ideas seem especially current in an election year too often driven by demagoguery and the fact that many people can't tell the difference between a functioning government and a televised reality show. They have their counterparts in the story, like the bellicose Parsons (Simon Coates), delighted that his young daughter can already spot and report undesirable people, or the gentle Charrington (Stephen Fewell), who thinks that living in the past will free him from the terrors of the present, or O'Brien (Tim Dutton), the well-dressed, unknowable bureaucrat who can become whomever he needs to be. And some are the "people who won't look up from their screens," in the words of the script, unable to connect with forces beyond themselves.

As good as the performances are, this British production, created by the company Headlong with the Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre, is powered by its high-tech staging. Jolts of light (designed by Natasha Chivers) and sound (designed by Tom Gibbons) bring each viewer inside Winston's brain, while Tim Reid's videos show scenes from different perspectives and create what Orwell called "doublethink": the ability to believe two opposing things simultaneously.

Shakespeare Theatre Company
By George Orwell; a new adaptation directed and adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Presented in association with Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse, and Almeida Theatre
Through April 10, 2016
Parsons: Simon Coates
O'Brien: Tim Dutton
Charrington: Stephen Fewell
Martin: Christopher Patrick Nolan
Syme: Ben Porter
Winston: Matthew Spencer
Mrs. Parsons: Mandi Symonds
Julia: Hara Yannas
Child: Koral Kent or Anais Killian
Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW, Washington, DC
Ticket information: 202-547-1122 or

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