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Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - June 22, 2017

The Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse, and Almeida Theatre Company production of 1984 by George Orwell. Adapted and Directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. Scenic and costume design by Chloe Lamford. Lighting design by Natasha Chivers. Sound design by Tom Gibbons. Video design by Tim Reid. Hair & makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Cast: Tom Sturridge, Olivia Wilde, Reed Birney, Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louis, Nick Mills, Michael Potts, Cara Seymour, Sami Bray, Willow McCarthy, Meredith Forlenza, Anthony Newfield, Tom Patterson; on film: Max Baker, Richard Gallagher.
Theatre: Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th Street between 6th and Broadway
Tickets: Telecharge

1984 Cast
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

The dystopia depicted by George Orwell (real name, Eric Arthur Blair) in his chillingly prescient novel 1984 has not come true in all of its nightmarish particulars, at least not to the extent that Orwell envisioned. But, needless to say, the current sociopolitical condition of the world has enough striking similarities to the totalitarian hell of the novel as to make one's blood run cold—all the more so since the shocking rise of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States.

Just how far off are we from the horrors of 1984? We the populace do not yet have government-installed telescreens in our private domiciles, scrutinizing our every action and utterance so that we may be arrested at any moment if we don't toe the party line, but most of us have "smart phones" that pinpoint our whereabouts. Also, a great deal of our personal information is available in the ether somewhere, and rare today is the public space that isn't under video camera surveillance. While probably not even the most rabid conspiracy theorists among us believe that people are employed by the government to censor or destroy historical documents and news archives, as the central character Winston Smith does in the Orwell novel, examples of one or another person or organization attempting to literally rewrite history are not uncommon. Perhaps most terrifying of all, the Orwellian concept of "doublespeak" and the maxim that "Ignorance is Strength" are hallmarks of the Trump administration (and, some would say, the present-day Republican party in general).

These frightening facts and others have lifted 1984 back onto the best-seller lists, and are no doubt the impetus for a group of producers headed by Sonia Friedman and Scott Rudin having now brought a stage adaptation of the property to Broadway. Some people consider the novel unstageable and unfilmable, but I disagree. Although a 1956 movie version is not well regarded, the 1984 film of 1984 (neat) starring John Hurt is excellent, and I was lucky enough to see a minimalist but powerful adaptation by Alan Lyddiard that was presented in a fine production by the Godlight Theatre Company at 59E59 theaters in 2009.

The current, high profile production at the Hudson Theatre is not quite so minimalist, incorporating as it does some major effects in terms of scenery (designed by Chloe Lamford), lighting (Natasha Chivers), and sound effects (Tom Gibbons), even if the cast is relatively small—nine people plus one alternate, three understudies, and two other actors who appear only on film. This is the Broadway transfer from England of a co-production by Headlong Theatre, the Nottingham Playhouse, and the Almeida Theatre Company. In 101 minutes, adapters/directors Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan and company retell the story of Winston's and his beloved Julia's failed rebellion against Big Brother and the Party that attempts to control every facet of all citizens' lives, including their very thoughts.

Tom Sturridge and Reed Birney
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

To get the negative out of the way first, it must be said that a few elements of this adaptation and production seem ill considered. A framing device has been added, which is not a bad idea in itself and does allow for the retention of more of Orwell's voice in the play, but the concept of this particular device is confusing at the start and doesn't fully make sense in the end. Also, the setting of the story has been fudged. The events of the novel are all the more disturbing because they occur mostly in a future landscape that remains recognizable as London, but while some British references (such as a recurring nursery rhyme) remain in the stage version, the "where is this happening" question is confused in that a few U.S. locales are mentioned, and all of the actors speak in American accents—including Tom Sturridge, the Brit who plays Winston. If resetting the story in an ill-defined, non-specific place was done with a view towards making the tale more universal, it actually has the opposite effect in undercutting one of the novel's greatest strengths.

There are other issues here. At several points during the evening, the audience is blinded by super-bright lights flashing directly in our faces. This serves the intended purpose of covering the movement of actors and set elements during scene changes, and the effect is arguably all of a piece with the kind of sensory assault that would be practiced by the Party, but it's annoying and painful in the extreme. Also: Though some extended scenes of Winston and Julia conducting their surreptitious affair are ostensibly being acted live offstage and projected for the audience on a large, sectioned screen that spans the width of the stage at a considerable height, these sequences actually seem to have been prerecorded, and therefore come across as even less immediate and less theatrical.

All of the above are minuses for the production, but ultimately the day is won by the power of Orwell's words and the high quality of the acting—and, of course, by the story's eerie relevance to current events. Though Sturridge's American accent (which he shouldn't have been required to adopt in the first place) is not 100 percent convincing, he fully and movingly inhabits Winston in every other respect, and he deserves a Tony Award nomination if only for his gut-wrenching portrayal of the poor man's physical and emotional agony under torture. Opposite him as Julia, Olivia Wilde gives a performance of quiet power that only grows in intensity as the plot progresses and the characters' lives go from bad to far worse. The fact that both Sturridge and Wilde are younger and sexier than the actors who played these roles in previous iterations of 1984 lends a new frisson and, arguably, an extra poignancy to the tale.

Having cited the unnecessary and unwise Americanization of 1984 for this production, I'll now admit that it does pay a dividend in regard to the always brilliant Reed Birney's performance as Inner Party member O'Brien. In the 1956 and 1984 film versions, this role was played respectively by Michael Redgrave and Richard Burton, whose plummy accents lent the character an aristocratic air. In contrast, Birney sounds like some nice, middle-class guy from Ohio, and as a result, the evil he perpetrates in the almost unbearable sequence during which O'Brien brutally tortures Winston as a means of controlling his mind is all the more devastating. The rest of the cast is very strong, with Michael Potts, Cara Seymour, and Wayne Duvall as standouts; and the direction of Icke and Macmillan is laudable overall, notwithstanding the reservations noted above.

One of the most telling lines in this adaptation of 1984 is not, I believe, a direct quote or paraphrase from the Orwell novel, but it certainly fits the tenor and spirit of the work. In the midst of the torture scene, O'Brien coldly tells Winston: "The people are not going to revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what's really happening." On this point, at least, there would seem to be hope. A gratifyingly large percentage of the U.S. and world population sees clearly that fascism is growing like a cancer, and is vehemently protesting it. Any and all proud members of this group should attend 1984 on Broadway if only to firm their resolve—but of course, this is an example of preaching to the converted. The tragedy is that no one on the side of darkness is likely to take in this extraordinary production—or read the novel, or see either film version—and therefore has zero chance of having his/her mind or heart opened by the harrowing cautionary tale that sprung from the pen of George Orwell nearly 70 years ago.


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