Even reviewers are influenced by reviews. So upon hearing about some of the reactions to the recent British import of George Orwell’s “1984,” I must admit that I had some misgivings about seeing the show. Yet I was intrigued at the same time.
The story describes a dystopian society where the totalitarian government controls all aspects of peoples’ lives, even their thoughts. Although Orwell wrote his book in 1949, there are scary parallels to modern politics, especially in reference to “false news” and “alternative facts” as the government keeps shifting alliances and rewriting history, altering accounts of wars and alliances.
The unlikely hero is Winston, played with passion by Tom Sturridge. He is a meek, quiet man and very ordinary looking, yet he has the heart of a rebel. Sturridge works extremely hard to win our sympathy. His job at the Ministry of Truth (an ironic label) is to delete references to people deemed undesirable by the government. Once he is given their numbers, he destroys any record that they ever existed, making them “unpersons.”
Winston begins his own rebellion by keeping a diary for later generations, and the play begins with a group of modern readers in 2050 sharing his words. However, it takes awhile before the audience realizes who they are. They wonder if Winston really even existed, as the play blurs time and place, and memory and truth become blurred as well.
Winston falls in love with Julia, played by Olivia Wilde making her Broadway debut in a somewhat wooden performance. The most fascinating character is O’Brien, played by a sinister Reed Birney. Cold and calculating, O’Brien enlists the pair into the resistance.
There’s a lot of repetition in the play. Winston’s colleague repeats the same story in which he brags about his young daughter turning in an “enemy of the state.” Unsurprisingly, later she turns her own father in as well.
Directors/ playwrights Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan keep the audience as off-kilter as Winston. Characters keep asking, “Winston, do you know where you are?” He doesn’t know and neither do we.
There’s explicit torture and violence, not usually seen onstage. Yet the sound is more frightening than is the visual. It is stark, often jolting and sometimes unexpected. Quite frankly, although Winston’s torture is gruesome, it seems tame compared to some popular television shows. Perhaps we’ve all become desensitized. The mostly young audience at the Hudson Theater didn’t seem too fazed by the violence. Undoubtedly, many of them are fans of “Game of Thrones” and “Walking Dead.”
Orwell’s book has had an indelible effect on our language, especially the term “Big Brother.” When Julia and Winston fall in love and find a secret place to be alone together, the action occurs offstage. It is simulcast and we watch it on screens above the stage. (Think about all the security cameras that record our every interaction.)
Orwell’s book was a warning against totalitarianism where people are totally manipulated, betray friends and family and are mollified with mere rations of chocolate. The play 1984 is disorienting and confusing both for Winston as well as the general theatergoer, especially those unfamiliar with the book. Probably the most disheartening aspect of the play is conveyed when O’Brien notes that the people will never rebel. "The people are not going to revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what's really happening.”
If you want an enjoyable night out, get tickets to Hello, Dolly (if you can) or Come From Away. However, if the news of the world isn’t grim enough, try 1984. It will certainly provide some interesting after-theater conversation.