'1984': Theater Review

Manuel Harlan
Stephen Fewell in '1984'
Writer-directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan conjure a nerve-racking new take on well-worn material.
2/6/2016

The Olivier-nominated adaptation of the George Orwell classic makes its North American debut.

Since the time of its first publication, 1984 has been cited by political parties of all stripes in defining their adversaries. Even today, overbearing bureaucracies and invasion of privacy are routinely described as Orwellian, suggesting that though the novel offers a timeless look at totalitarianism, most of the free world recognizes at least some of Big Brother’s tactics in its daily life, whether it be NSA surveillance or Internet privacy issues.

It would have been appropriate for Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke of the British theater company Headlong to draw these parallels in their Olivier Award-nominated adaptation. It also would have been obvious and unoriginal. Instead, the creative team has focused on the novel’s appendix, titled The Principles of Newspeak, written 70 to 100 years after the events of the book. With new perspective, what once was a story about the future becomes a story about the past, though voiced by an unreliable narrator.

When we first meet Winston Smith (Matthew Spencer), he is writing in a ledger that appears on a screen above designer Chloe Lamford’s appropriately drab, atemporal setting. Winston lives in Oceania, a totalitarian state run by the Party. Just as he scribbles the words “thought crime,” a drop of blood hits the page, a nosebleed inauspiciously heralding the play’s climax in the Ministry of Love, where thought crimes are eradicated.

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Yes, Winston is being watched as he seeks out his soul mate, Julia (Hara Yannas), a rebel with equally contemptuous views of the Party. They launch a forbidden affair consummated in a secret room backstage where scenes play out for the audience via hidden cameras. For Winston, the affair is sexually gratifying but insignificant as an act of rebellion. The Brotherhood, a rebel group that may or may not be real, beckons in the form of Inner Party member O’Brien (Tim Dutton), who turns out to be a conduit to the shadowy rebellion. Soon after Winston and Julia swear their allegiance to the group, they are arrested and he is “fixed” by a team of torturers, taught to see the world precisely as he’s told to.

The framing device of latter-day readers parsing the text, trying to make sense of it, casts the narrative in a new light, one that is shattered, shifting between dream and reality with seldom a clue as to which is which. Is Winston a real person? Is he mad or sane? What was his purpose in keeping a highly incriminating diary? Why didn’t the Party destroy it? Are the events real? Dreams? Or are they written by a third party in an effort to make people believe … what?

When language becomes unhinged, as it does with Newspeak, we lose our grip on reality and an element of Kafka is introduced. Party officials celebrate the fact that the Newspeak dictionary is the shortest ever conceived, and getting shorter. By deleting words, they aim to deny the existence of inconvenient concepts. How can you yearn for freedom if there are no words for it?

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If this sounds confusing, it is, but only for the opening scenes, which pass like a fugue, with snippets of information and exchanges, some real, some imagined. But things quickly settle into a coherent narrative, albeit one marked by Tom Gibbons’ febrile sound design of ominous undercurrents, electrical buzzes and distorted echoes. This is a perfect complement to Lamford’s flashbulbs that line the proscenium, amply capturing the sudden violence of a blow to the head followed by blackout as consciousness slips. It’s effective at first, but becomes overbearing in the bloody climax, a sustained torture scene underscored by O’Brien’s long rambling monologue.

The nerve-rattling sequence proved too much for a few members of the audience on opening night, who exited before the final curtain. It’s understandable, but doesn't change the fact that they missed the remainder of an outstanding production. Alongside Terry Gilliam’s 1985 classic Brazil, Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation of 1984 stands out as one of the most unique and disturbing takes on a book that sadly never seems to lose its relevance.

Venue: The Broad Stage, Santa Monica
Cast: Simon Coates, Tim Dutton, Stephen Fewell, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Ben Porter, Matthew Spencer, Mandi Symonds, Hara Yannas, Inez Lynch Alfaro, Rusian Heginbotham, Emma Markolf
Director-adapters: Robert Icke, Duncan Macmillan
Set & costume designer: Chloe Lamford
Lighting designer: Natasha Chivers
Sound designer: Tom Gibbons
Presented by The Broad Stage, Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse, Almeida Theatre

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