Theatre is now officially engaged—or entrenched—with the age of President Donald Trump. After the attempted stage invasions and protests leveled against the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, and theaters that just happened to have ‘Shakespeare’ in their name, comes Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stark, intense, and visually stunning adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, which they have also directed.
Will there be more protests and threats to greet this production at New York’s Hudson Theatre? Unlikely, but who knows with people loudly invoking Goebbels’ name at a Shakespeare play focused on the death of democracy?
1984, the play, began life in the U.K. in 2013, as a co-production between Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse, before moving to London’s Almeida in 2014. Trump is not mentioned by name. But the echoes to the present were audible in the audience’s sighs and wry laughs the night I saw the play.
The setting remains the kingdom of Oceania, under the grip of the Party, a ruthless, mind-controlling, mind-destroying, numbing dictatorship.
“Big Brother” is invisible, and his ruthless apparatchik, O’Brien (Reed Birney) has not been accessorized with orange hair and red tie. Indeed, as played brilliantly by Birney, he dispenses physical cruelty and the cool justifications for it as any single-minded bureaucrat might when faced with a challenge or warp in the system.
O’Brien makes the case for totalitarian oppression and brutality with such glintingly clear linguistic force and precision that, although his words are ludicrous they are also believable because they are stated with such certainty. O’Brien blithely negates humanity, morality and justice. It's not that resistance is futile—it’s an anathema.
Orwell was writing an extreme political satire, though the response to Donald Trump’s presidency means this extremity now comes freighted with foreboding. What Orwell wrote in 1949, when the book was first published, about a dictatorship in extremis may still seem excessive, but it also sadly seems not too wild an extrapolation. "It's still fresh today as it was then," Richard Blair, Orwell’s son, said this week.
Oceania is a world in reverse, seen in both the actors’ movements and the complete inversion of social and political normalcy. Here, everything is uncertain: the notion of time, personhood, truth, and fiction.
In Orwell’s Oceania, the Ministry of Love is the ministry of fear, the Ministry of Peace oversees wars and conflicts; and the Ministry of Truth is the ministry of propaganda.
In the yawning gap where democracy once was, piped in by lit screens and screens above the stage are Newspeak, the government’s language, and the presence of the Thought Police and the “thoughtcrimes” that they prosecute.
The challenge to the regime that Orwell presents is Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge). Sturridge, his head shaved on the sides with a curious mop-top crowning it, is a man askew from the beginning.
He knows enough to try to blend in, but the broadcasts from Big Brother, and his job of making people un-people—of wiping their existences—he does uncomplainingly.
This un-society is marked, extremely effectively, by characters moving by suspicious rote and by the standout scenic design, lighting and sound effects of the production, conceived by Chloe Lamford, Natasha Chivers, and Tom Gibbons respectively.
The lighting—huge shafts of it blinking on and off like sudden lightning on the sides of the stage—is particularly striking, and its own instrument of control. It dazzles and blinds the audience, and is thematically an echo of the disorienting and debilitating methods of Big Brother and O’Brien. The production's visuals accentuate the play’s later graphic torture scenes and general sense of menace. (As of Thursday, the production set an age restriction for the play—only those 13 and older are allowed entry.)
There are screens on the back of the stage which show us the action in other rooms, which emblazon words like “Big Brother Is Watching You” and “Hate,” to signal the ferociously loud two minutes of hate every day the populus must express to Emmanuel Goldstein, an alleged rebel leader. (As their faces contort in rage, you recall “Lock her up, lock her up.”) There are other signs: “War Is Peace”; “Freedom Is Slavery,”; “Ignorance Is Strength.”
O’Brien first gulls Winston into thinking he too is a rebel against the Party; Winston reciting that he would happily throw sulphuric acid in the face of a child to help undermine the Party. But love is Winston’s only weapon against Big Brother. He falls for fellow secret rebel Julia (Olivia Wilde), and it is their secret affair and what it expresses that stands in contravention to the super-state around them.
But this love affair, with its tentative blandishments of spontaneity and freedom, is from its beginning as doomed as a robin with a broken wing.
Apparently, audience members have fainted during the show, and why becomes obvious in this 100-minute, intermission-less production. Smith’s torture at the hands of O’Brien and his faceless, chem-accident-suited goons is tough and awful to watch. In the fabled torture chamber Room 101—here a white-walled chamber—Winston’s teeth are bloodily extracted, and head blasted.
O’Brien’s objective is to break Winston, who is determined, futilely, not to betray Julia. O’Brien wants to make Winston see what the state says he sees, as emblemized not the number of fingers he is holding up, but the number of fingers he says he is holding up.
“If you want a picture of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--for ever,” says O’Brien. “The face of the enemy. Defeated. Powerless. But about to be cured.”
Around me, audience members shifted uncomfortably as more and more violence was meted out to Sturridge. Where Birney is immaculately controlled sociopathy, Sturridge is physically and mentally beaten, wrung out, and reduced to abused, sniveling desperation. It is a painfully transfixing performance.
What this adaptation does, and which no other adaptation has done until now the Orwell estate told Icke and Macmillan, is take Orwell’s appendix of the original novel to pose a series of teasing questions about Smith to create an even more haunting denouement than Orwell’s original. This is fiction pretending to be fact, and written by someone from the future who is now living in an era after the Party has fallen.
“Can you trust evidence? How do you ever know what’s really true? And when and where are you, the reader, right now?” Icke and Macmillan ask in their note to readers of the play.
These are questions that flow from 1984, and also flow from our truth- and fact-tested world today. Icke and Macmillan also pointedly sign their authorial note, “September 2050.” Who might pick up this play then, what might they have lived through, and what might they deduce from it?
1984 is at the Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th Street, New York City, through October 8. Book tickets here.