A new stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 recently opened on Broadway, and some audiences are finding it hard to take. The problem isn’t the awareness that we live in truly Orwellian times, complete with misinformation (fake news) and the denial of truth from the head of our government. Nor is the problem Trump fatigue, the desire to just ignore it all already. The reason that people have been fainting or otherwise fleeing the Hudson Theatre is the intensity of the play itself.
Co–adapters and directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have created a show that’s not so much a faithful translation of Orwell’s dystopian classic as it is a full immersion inside the reality of the book. 1984 skips back and forth in time like a nightmare on a loop, making Winston Smith (played by Tom Sturridge) distrust his senses and sanity long before he ends up in torture chamber Room 101. The directors and designers make sure the audience feels Winston’s desperation and pain every step of the way. In London, some spectators fainted or vomited; there’s been at least one loss of consciousness here in New York.
It’s not like folks aren’t warned. A sign in the lobby reads: “This production contains flashing lights, strobe effects, loud noises, gunshots, smoking, and graphic depictions of violence and torture. It is not suitable for children under 14.” And we all know from the book and the movie (which starred John Hurt and Richard Burton) that 1984 is a brutally grim tale of a man who tries to resist the state but is crushed. Winston keeps a private diary where he records heretical thoughts, expressing doubt that Oceania is really at war with East Asia. He begins an illegal affair with Julia (played by Olivia Wilde), who wages her acts of resistance between the sheets. Sinister and silent in the background is O’Brien (Reed Birney), a Party boss whose job is to detect and stamp out dissidence.
So while the general plot line of the Hudson’s 1984 remains the same, the designers use strobe lights and electric shock noises to transition from scene to scene and slowly build a sense of paranoia and instability. By the time Winston and Julia are arrested for “sexcrime” and thrown in prison, the sound and lights become nearly unbearable. Long bursts of electronic noises assault your ears, while bright lights blind you for a few seconds. The set flies apart, sirens wail, gun-waving goons run across the stage, and white walls slowly descend on three sides of Winston and O’Brien. That’s Room 101, where “the worst thing in the world” will break your spirit and make you agree that two and two make five.
The stuff that really gets folks fainting or fighting to keep dinner down happens in Room 101. I won’t go into detail in case you plan to see the show, but it involves graphic violence done to fingertips and teeth with lots of stage blood. Sturridge does a fine job conveying the abject helplessness of his character, choking up long strings of bloody spittle and contorting his body in agony. By contrast, Birney is coolly malevolent, a totalitarian Mephistopheles who utters Orwell’s unforgettable line, “If you want a picture of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
This version of 1984 may be the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever seen on Broadway. At the same time, it’s utterly compelling and superbly executed, so go. Is that doublethink? Sue me for thoughtcrime.
Why You Should Go: For those with strong stomachs and an appetite for work that pushes buttons, this is an unforgettable piece of theater.
139-141 West 44th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Midtown
Through Sunday, October 8
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