By George Orwell
Adapted and Directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free/Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see/The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” – Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1962)
Did the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties at the end of World War II resolve all the conflicts between the Allied and the Axis powers or would Allied countries like the United States and the United Kingdom be perpetually at war with someone else? Once allies – the United States and Russia – are now enemies with Cold War rhetoric between them escalating. And if perpetually at war, how would the new superpowers maintain their control both abroad and at home? Writing in 1948, George Orwell contemplated these and other “post-war” enduring questions and proffered dire warnings about his dystopian vision of the future.
These warnings are reissued in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’ adaptation of Orwell’s 1949 novel “1984” currently running at the Hudson Theatre. The “super state” Oceania is a province of Airstrip One (the former Great Britain) where the thoughts and actions of its citizens are monitored constantly through a macabre system of surveillance and mind control overseen by “Thought Police” and enforced by an equally grisly “Ministries” all accountable to and designed by “Big Brother” who is always watching. “English Socialism” is the name of the regime and unshakable tyranny is its method of durability.
Winston Smith (played with an intense conviction tempered with the pain of reality by Tom Sturridge) works for the Ministry of Truth and is responsible for maintaining the “party line” by rewriting history to match the regime’s propaganda, including Oceania’s perpetual War with Eurasia (or Eastasia depending on the state’s whim). Winston’s work creates an interest in “real history” and the facts about the past. This interest results in doubt and eventual mistrust of the government and Winston’s desire to overthrow Big Brother. “1984” is Winston’s story of opposition, arrest, punishment, and reclamation. Winston teams up with Julia (played with a charming deceptiveness and a disarming inscrutability by Olivia Wilde). Both trust and are eventually betrayed by O’Brien (played with an eerie psychotic detachment by Reed Birney) and are coerced into betraying each other.
The members of the cast of “1984” deliver soul-splitting performances that appear to defy the limitations of their craft. They deftly maintain the fragile suspension of disbelief while escorting the audience through a cavern of metacognition and catharsis. They keep the audience in a heightened level of awareness and involvement that culminates in the scene in the Ministry of Love’s Room 101 that nearly shatters not only the resolve of the protagonist but also the emotional tolerance of the viewers.
Replacing Orwell’s rich diction and syntax is Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s staging of the adaptation. The time frame of the novel has also been compressed – everything seems to happen within a day as opposed to weeks and months. This compression of time heightens the urgency of Orwell’s warning and exacerbates the need for action. Chloe Lamford’s diatonic scenic and costume design and Natasha Chivers’s stark lighting design counterpoint perfectly this urgency.
What happens when current events have surpassed dystopian constructs? What happens when the imagined has become reality? What happens when fictional totalitarianism begins to mirror non-fictional 2017 politics? “1984” continues to raise these and other rich and enduring questions.