The management of “1984,” the lauded West End import playing at Broadway’s Hudson Theater, felt it necessary to ban children under 13 from the stage production adapted by co-directors Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan from the 1949 dystopian political novel by George Orwell. That should be fair warning that this show, originally produced by Headlong, the Nottingham Playhouse and the Almeida Theater, is tough to take — but worth the cost of losing your lunch.
There’s nothing subtle about this unrelentingly grim adaptation of a literary sci-fi novel that’s been selling like bootleg sex tapes in recent political years. (In the month after Kellyanne Conway’s infamous utterance about “alternative facts,” the book skyrocketed to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.) The catch phrases that chilled your blood when you read the book — “thought police,” “newspeak,” “doublethink,” “thoughtcrimes,” and, of course, “Big Brother Is Watching You” — are spoken on stage and projected on screens of a chillingly futuristic set designed by Chloe Lamford.
But it’s the unnerving sound-and-light show by Tom Gibbons (sound design) and Natasha Chivers (lighting) that really gets under your skin and burrows, wormlike, into your brain. As eye-watering lighting effects slice through scenes like so many knives, metallic sounds of inhuman origin saw through your skull. Welcome to the world of the future — or do I mean the present?
Unlike film and TV versions of the book, this production presents a vision that’s closer to Brechtian expressionism than Hollywood realism. (In our narcissistic age, the notion of being under constant surveillance by some “Big Brother” is actually titillating, not terrifying.) Opening as it does, with the everyman figure of Winston Smith (played with coiled muscles and killing intensity by Tom Sturridge) fantasizing a normal world of the future beyond his own wretched life, the play exists outside known reality.
Projected to 2050, this future world is represented by an ordinary conference room where a group of ordinary people (including the admirable Michael Potts) are holding a spirited book club discussion of Orwell’s novel. Their literary bone of contention is whether or not Orwell’s fictional character of “Winston Smith” is a reliable narrator.
To resolve that question, Winston steps forward to tell his own story of his own time. Although the basic set pieces remain the same, attention shifts to enveloping screens on which video designer Tim Reid projects gigantic letters appropriate for describing the dicta of Big Brother. To reflect in “doublethink” is to believe two diametrically opposite things at once. To converse in “newspeak” is to strip the language of all freighted meaning and nuance and talk (with or without stupid hand gestures) in baby talk. And to be “unpersoned” is to be obliterated, written out of the history books, denied existence, killed. To prepare the populace for the executions of such individuals, Big Brother indulges them in Two-Minute Hate sessions that frighten the horses and leave the actors breathless.
It is Winston’s job to change “Oldspeak” into “Newspeak” (which is to say, lies) by falsifying and/or eradicating persons and events that fail to correspond to Big Brother’s flexible notions of truth. In other words, it’s his job to rewrite history, and once he realizes what he’s doing, he nearly goes mad.
Two things keep him alive and give him hope. An avuncular older man named O’Brien (Tony winner Reed Birney, being bloody brilliant again) arranges for his secret membership in an underground resistance group known as “the Brotherhood.” Even more vivifying is his love affair with a beautiful and passionate woman named Julia (Olivia Wilde, of “Vinyl” and “House”) who introduces him to the ecstasy of having a private room all to themselves in the back of an antique shop run by Potts in a white wig. Love! Privacy! Antiques! Winston comes alive, although Sturridge is so wound up he never really surrenders to sex and love.
Julia is not above a bit of “newspeak” of her own when she describes their fierce lovemaking as “a political act.” Actually, sex does become political in a society where human connections, like human thought and human language, are forbidden. It won’t be long before — spoiler alert! — their charming bedroom is revealed for what it is: a stage set, designed to catch the traitors and drag them off to the Ministry of Love.
The white-walled Ministry of Love is actually the seat of torture where, among other horrendous acts, Winston’s teeth and fingertips are removed by — you guessed it! — O’Brien, who in Birney’s performance softens his voice and transforms himself into a holy terror. He’s so unsettling during this scene (scarier than the box of rats waiting for Winston in Room 101 of the Ministry of Love) that Orwell’s suggestion that Big Brother doesn’t actually exist — that he is, in fact, all of us — really knocks us out. Unless, of course, you fainted at some point during the show.