Theater Review: How Orwellian Is 1984?

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Photo: Copyright 2017 Julieta Cervantes

Well, this wasn’t Julius Caesar, and no protester interrupted the writer-directors Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s adaptation of 1984 the night I saw it. That may be a sign of its weakness as a play — or of its flexibility. After all, political adherents all over the spectrum claim George Orwell as their own. To the left, the story of Winston Smith speaks about right-wing authoritarianism and suppression of dissent. To the right, it speaks about the dangers of big government and Soviet economics. When Tom Sturridge, who plays Winston, joins the resistance and announces, “I want corruption, I want violence,” he could be Huey Newton, but he could also be Steve Bannon. Everyone wants to be against tyranny. We just can’t all agree on who Big Brother is.

Of course, this production of 1984 transferred here from London with one particular Big Brother in mind, and the New York audience responds audibly to certain lines of dialogue — notably “There is truth, and there are facts.” Yet the goings-on are ostensibly not taking place in our time, although the story has been relocated to America (or some formerly American place). The framing device is a seminar about the book at an unspecified future date, in a paneled room that is far more comfortable than the crumbly London spaces of Orwell’s book. (Some clarity on this point comes in the last minutes of the play, which I will not spoil.) A reading group discusses how true the story might be, or might have been.

It’s a show highly dependent on special effects and stagecraft, with a lot of thunderous noise and blinding flashes of light when bad stuff comes to pass, and the most striking bit of production takes us entirely offstage: When Winston and his fellow rebel Julia have their clandestine meet-ups in the back room of a dusty London shop, we see the scenes play out on an enormous video screen above the main set. It’s not clear, until fairly late in the play, whether those slightly grainy scenes are being played live or were pre-taped. That’s the point: We’re meant to consider the unreliability of images and their sources, and the ubiquity of cameras recording our every move. The big video monitor is of wide proportions, similar to those of the novel’s telescreens. And though it’s a little off-putting to see perhaps 20 percent of a play mediated on a big TV, it’s a legitimate idea for theater-making, inventively and thoughtfully deployed.

What’s weak, astonishingly enough, is the script, at least for the first hour. This would seem impossible, because nearly all its lines are taken from Orwell’s peerless, graceful, tonally controlled paragraphs. On the page, the monstrosity of the Oceania dictatorship is workaday and almost humdrum, which makes it seem that much more monstrous. Macmillan and Icke go in the opposite direction, increasing the volume every which way as they snip and trim and reconstruct, and in doing so the dialogue turns stentorian and overdirect. When Winston reads aloud a number of passages from the rebel Emmanuel Goldstein’s book, he comes off not as a broken-down man awakened from political indifference, but instead as an strident dorm room Marxist declaiming to his girlfriend. (They start making out at one point as he reads.) It doesn’t help that, whereas Orwell’s Winston is an old and frail 39, with a persistent ulcer on his leg and a dry hacking cough, Sturridge is a ripped 31, and could pass for 23.

Olivia Wilde — well cast, certainly, in terms of her bearing — likewise doesn’t entirely capture Julia, who on Orwell’s page is superb at adopting a mask of conformity but is offhand and a little sarcastic when she’s away from the telescreen. Here, she (like Winston) is tautly strident, straining for justice. In the book, when Julia and Winston first sleep together, it’s intense yet tender; onstage, their sweaty grapple is staged as a strenuous near-fight. (Wilde reportedly split her lip in one rehearsal, and broke Sturridge’s nose in another.) They are anxious about being caught, but nobody here seems to have the nearly numb resignation undergirding that anxiety that dominates Orwell’s characters.

But then comes the arrest, and the whole thing starts to snap together. The torture scenes are visceral, ghastly, and hair-raisingly vivid. Blood is spattered and spit out; at least one beating about the face, occasioned by one awful command, “teeth,” had a large part of the audience flinching. Sturridge is vastly better in this part of the show; it places heavy demands on him as a physical actor, and he’s up to that job. But perhaps these scenes hang together because they are commanded by Reed Birney as the Inner Party member O’Brien, who is directing the torture. Birney is just about perfect in the role: He is the picture of reason and rationality as he explains the ways in which Winston’s failure to believe is in fact just error, delusion, doublethink. His dead calm is the most menacing thing onstage, much more than the blaring sound effects. And indeed, he wins.

But maybe you’re weary of his sort of winning. The Broadway audience was. Although there were no protestors trying to disrupt that evening at the Hudson Theatre, one shout did erupt behind me during curtain calls and standing ovation: IMPEACH TRUMP, a middle-aged man bellowed, twice. I didn’t see whether it was caught on video, but it’s a good bet that it was.

Theater Review: How Orwellian Is 1984?