You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Broadway Review: ‘1984’ Starring Olivia Wilde

Tom Sturridge, Olivia Wilde, Reed Birney, Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louis, Nick Mills, Michael Potts, and Cara Seymour, with Sami Bray and Willow McCarthy.

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.

Broadway Review: '1984' Starring Olivia Wilde

Hudson Theater; 957 seats; $149 top. Opened June 22, 2017. Reviewed June 21. Running time: ONE HOUR, 40 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Sonia Friedman Productions, Scott Rudin, Eleanor Lloyd Productions, The John Gore Organization, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Eli Bush, Patrick Catullo, Scott M. Delman, Stephanie M. McClelland, Richard Winkler, Barbara Whitman, Zeilinger Productions, Paul Bendat, Paula Marie Black, Colin Callender, Ruth Hendel, Wendy Federman, JFL Theatricals & Tanya Link Productions, Olympus Theatricals & Firemused Productions, Ramin Sabi, Jane Bergere, Anita Waxman, Philip Hagemann & Murray Rosenthal, JDCA Productions & Lauren Stein, with executive producers Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner & John Johnson, of the Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse & Almeida Theater production of a play in one act adapted by Robert Icke & Duncan MacMillan from a novel by George Orwell.

Creative: Directed by Robert Icke & Duncan MacMillan. Sets & costumes, Chloe Lamford; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Tom Gibbons; video, Tim Reid; hair & makeup, Campbell Young Associates; production stage manager, Arthur Gaffin.

Cast: Tom Sturridge, Olivia Wilde, Reed Birney, Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louis, Nick Mills, Michael Potts, and Cara Seymour, with Sami Bray and Willow McCarthy.

More Legit

  • Audra McDonald Frankie and Johnny

    Listen: How Audra McDonald Faced Her Fear in 'Frankie and Johnny'

    When producers offered Audra McDonald a role in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” opposite Michael Shannon, she immediately said yes. Then she remembered the nude scene. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Hell, yes, there was trepidation,” the Tony-winning actress said on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. “I was [...]

  • A Strange Loop review

    Off Broadway Review: 'A Strange Loop'

    “No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write,” sings the anxiety-ridden lead character in Michael R. Jackson’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating new musical, “A Strange Loop,” at Playwrights Horizons. The abundantly talented Jackson takes the otherwise tired trope of the young, poor and sensitive artist trying to discover his true self and [...]

  • Richard E Grant Everybody's Talking About

    Richard E. Grant to Play Former Drag Queen in 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie'

    Oscar-nominated actor Richard E. Grant will portray a former drag queen and mentor in “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” the movie adaptation of the British stage musical. “Catastrophe” co-creator and star Sharon Horgan and “Happy Valley” star Sarah Lancashire have also joined the film. Max Harwood will play the titular role of Jamie, a role inspired [...]

  • The Secret Life of Bees review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Secret Life of Bees'

    There’s a sweet sense of sisterhood that’s simply divine in “The Secret Life of Bees,” the heartwarming new musical at the Atlantic Theater Company based on Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling 2002 coming-of-age novel, set in South Carolina in 1964 amid Civil Rights struggles. (A 2008 film adaptation starred Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah.) The feeling [...]

  • 10 Comics to Watch

    Variety Announces 10 Comics to Watch for 2019

    Variety has chosen its 10 Comics to Watch for 2019. The honorees will be profiled in the July 18 issue of Variety and at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal at a cocktail party on Thursday, July 25, followed by a panel and showcase on Friday, July 26. The events are sponsored by Cohen & Gardner LLP. The [...]

  • Vanessa Hudgens So You Think You

    Vanessa Hudgens, Hailey Kilgore to Star in Reading of 'The Notebook' Musical

    Vanessa Hudgens and Tony-nominee Hailey Kilgore are joining an upcoming reading of Ingrid Michaelson’s stage adaptation of “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks. Tony nominee Michael Greif is set to direct the reading, which will open June 23 at Vassar College’s Martel Theater as part of their Powerhouse Theater season. Kilgore will star as the younger [...]

  • Moulin Rouge director Alex Timbers

    'Beetlejuice,' 'Moulin Rouge!' Director Alex Timbers on Creating Worlds on Broadway

    In the past year, Alex Timbers has directed the Tony-nominated “Beetlejuice” and the stage adaptation of “Moulin Rouge!” (which begins previews June 28 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre). Here, he reflects on his most recent projects and the challenges of bringing two iconic movie musicals to Broadway within a year.  Both your musicals live in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content