by Carol Rocamora
Caution: Enter At Your Own Peril….
That’s the sign they should place on the marquee of the Hudson Theatre. Those of you already traumatized by the Trump era should be warned that some of what happens inside may be too frighteningly familiar.
1984, the long-awaited stage version of George Orwell’s landmark 1949 novel, has finally arrived on our shores. And whatever your memories are of reading this classic in school, you won’t be prepared for the overwhelming power of experiencing it live in a theatre.
Adapted and co-directed by Robert Icke, a rising star in the British theatre, together with Duncan MacMillan, 1984 offers an intentionally disjointed, disorienting vision of a frightening totalitarian state (called Oceania) ruled by an unseen “Big Brother” – where “newspeak” is the enforced lingua franca, where “thought crime” is severely punished by the “thought police,” and where tyranny and terror are the government’s modus operandi. The action shifts back and forth between this nightmarish vision and the future, where members of a benign book group look back on it, trying to decipher its historical significance through the diary of one of its unfortunate citizens.
That poor fellow, Winston Smith (played by a vulnerable Tom Sturridge) has been tasked with rewriting history for Oceania. Instead, he tries to rebel, together with his beloved Julia (Olivia Wilde). But they can’t escape the scrutiny of Big Brother’s emissary, played by an icy Reed Birney, who ultimately prevails over their attempts to reveal the truth.
This one-hundred-minute ordeal will hold you in its steely grip from the moment you enter the auditorium to the sound of an ominous rumbling that soon becomes a roar. Icke’s skilled design team (set by Chloe Lamford, sound by Tom Gibbons, lighting by Natasha Chivers, video by Tim Reid) succeeds brilliantly in creating this terrifying world. The huge screen that towers over Winston and Olivia flash slogans like “HATE” and other orders that the populous must obey. That same screen also shows Winston and Olivia’s one tender, private moment of love, enacted behind the scenes but projected onstage for all to see.
But this design team does its job too successfully, I’m afraid.
Ultimately, we see Winston trapped in the most horrific, graphic torture scene I’ve ever seen onstage, accompanied by deafening sounds and blinding lights. It’s a scene that I keenly wish the directors and designers had made more metaphorical and less literal.
That unfortunate interlude notwithstanding, the co-directors make their point (and Orwell’s). You’ll leave shaken, deeply disturbed – and wondering how these prescient collaborators could have foreseen its painful relevance to what’s happening in our country today. Their clever adaptation is a powerful political piece for our troubled times, when “fake news” and “alternative facts” are our “newspeak” – just as they were in Oceania, where “ignorance is knowledge” and “war is peace,” and 2+2 does not necessarily equal 4. Just turn on your television set today, and see how every governmental lie is countered with a “rational” explanation, denial, or brush-off – to the point that we don’t know what’s true anymore, or worse, give up hope of finding out.
“In all this insanity there was one person who held tight to the truth,” said a researcher, looking back on the Oceania nightmare. Where is that one person today who will dare to do so, tenaciously and relentlessly, at the cost of his own life and livelihood, as Winston Smith did?
Let’s pray we’re not going down the road to Oceania.
1984, by George Orwell, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, at the Hudson Theatre, now through October 8.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes