Review: ‘1984’—More Distasteful Than Intense
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, July 13, 2017
Broadway productions don’t come timelier than 1984. Or, at least, that’s what the creators are hoping you will think. And, to be sure, in this time of “alternative facts” and such ironically named political initiatives as “Right to Work” laws, it seems that we could all benefit from a reminder of the all-too-real horrors that George Orwell envisioned—or, more to the point, already saw happening around him—in his classic 1949 novel.
But whereas the message of 1984 is as timely as ever, this particular interpretation—adapted and directed by the British team of Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan—lacks the visceral impact of the Orwell original.
I know. That sounds odd, given what we’ve been hearing about the supposedly intense nature of the production, with reports of audience members fainting or becoming sick. What’s more, the producers have announced that no one under 13 will be admitted. In reality, all of this kerfuffle feels like so much showmanship rather than a legitimate warning, akin to 1950s movie promoters claiming that they’ll have nurses located in the lobby for patrons who find the movie too upsetting.
This 1984 is not so much shocking as distasteful. The show certainly involves a lot of stage blood. What it lacks is the novel’s overwhelming sense of dread, the chilling paranoia with which the original story is replete.
As anyone who’s ever been a sophomore in high school knows, 1984 centers around a dystopian future society under the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother, an oppressive overlord. The central character Winston Smith, played here by an indistinct and perpetually confused Tom Sturridge, works at the ironically named Ministry of Truth.
Winston spends his days rewriting history, erasing any trace of people who have run afoul of, and thus been eliminated by, Big Brother. Winston hooks up with—in more than one sense—a female comrade named Julia (a thoroughly impassive Olivia Wilde), and the pair attempt to join the resistance against Big Brother.
Rather than simply present the story of 1984 on stage, Icke and Macmillan have created a sort of framing device involving what appears to be some sort of book club, or perhaps an academic salon, during which characters rather clumsily spout exposition. The device becomes particularly egregious during a cloying and unnecessary epilogue.
Icke and Macmillan clearly want us to see the resonance between the novel and the way we live now, but the parallels feel forced. We’re supposed to say, “Ooh, wasn’t Orwell prescient,” but the authors consistently stack the deck with words and phrases that feel plucked from today’s political climate rather than from Orwell’s book. As a result, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for the characters, as they feel like mouthpieces.
The production features impressive stagecraft, but most of it serves to distance us from the story rather than envelope us. The heightened theatricality makes it all too easy to disengage and remind yourself it isn’t really happening.
[Warning: Spoilers Below]
For instance, a good portion of the show, mostly the time that Winston and Julia spend in their romantic hideaway, takes place on video, projected onto the back of the set. If I want to stare at a screen, I’ll go to the movies. It’s not really clear whether we’re watching live video or a prerecorded tape and the cast is backstage having a smoke.
Even the dreaded climax of the story is a bit of a letdown. Winston discovers the true identity of O’Brien (played here by a disappointingly blasé Reed Birney), and undergoes an increasingly cruel series of, shall we say, reprogramming exercises. But the staging sapped the scene of its potential horror, and merely seemed to consist of cast members pouring stage blood into Sturridge’s mouth and fists.
Far more disturbing was an earlier scene featuring a televised execution, with cast members obediently fulminating at their telescreens. This disturbing moment set up expectations for the story’s climax, upon which the production decidedly failed to deliver.
1984 at the Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th Street, until October 8, 2017. 101 minutes; no intermission. Based on the novel by George Orwell. Adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan; set and costume design by Chloe Lamford; lighting design by Natasha Chivers; sound design by Tom Gibbons; video design by Tim Reid; hair and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates; production stage manager: Arthur Gaffin. Cast: Reed Birney, Olivia Wilde, Tom Sturridge, Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louis, Nick Mills, Michael Potts and Cara Seymour.
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Cover: Cast of ‘1984;’ photo: Julieta Cervantes.