'1984:' Even Scarier Than Real Life

Sometimes we all need a good slap upside the head -- a slap that stings the eyes but clarifies our vision for an instant, a slap that hurts. A wake up, eye-opening, smack.

The new Broadway production of George Orwell’s decisive dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, delivers such a slap. You may find your eyes watering but you won’t be weeping.

I believe George Orwell would have appreciated the impact of this production. It is no fun and neither was Orwell, from what I have read. The issues he grappled with were simply too serious for Orwell to be otherwise. Yet, the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm was hardly humorless.

By the time he penned his defining final works of emphatic totalitarian dissection, in 1949 and 1945, respectively, Orwell – who died in 1950 – had figured out how to edify, unsettle and entertain a reader simultaneously. The Broadway iteration that opened as 1984 last week at the Hudson Theatre, adapted and directed as it was in its original London incarnation by West End wunderkinds Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, seems determined to similarly shake us up and down. Since many, if not most, of us are arriving at the Hudson Theatre already pretty shaken by the events and personalities of our day, this theatrical objective might seem redundant. In the end, however, it just feels cathartic.

Broadway’s stage 1984 works as Orwell’s novel does: with disrupted language, with “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime” and “memory holes” here made horrifyingly, tangibly visual and audible via a high-tech arsenal of shock and awe lighting, sound design, video projections and, yes, with blood. There is a whole mess of blood by the time the curtain comes down. Yet, the pain inflicted by this 1984 is far more grippingly sensory than it is gratuitously gory.

The attack is by no means perfect. When dramatizing the actual narrative of the novel, 1984 is most effective. When deploying a rather over-elaborate framing device, which I will not divulge here, the distance gained on the novel seemed to me inconsequential, if not downright condescending. Chalk it up, I would wager, to a perceived, yet utterly unnecessary, need to remedially boost up ticket buyers entering with little or no knowledge of Orwell’s original. Toss it out, I suspect, and no-one would be the wiser.

The performances are terrific. As Winston Smith, the neo-heroic protagonist (quite likely named by Orwell, I must point out, for Winston Churchill), Tom Sturridge is far more dazed and confused than I would have imagined from reading the book, but there is something in the shaping of this performance by Mr. Sturridge and his directors that invites the audience in while, ultimately, leaving no way out. It’s creepy and, at times, rather frustrating. But it works.

Olivia Wilde, as Winston Smith’s conspiratorial inamorata, Julia, is altogether inscrutable, which also works. At times I yearned for an emotional expression I could absolutely grasp to my heart but that is not what this 1984 is after. Virtually every gesture in the show is open to interpretation and designed to leave the audience reeling and wondering. “Orwellian,” in other words.

My dear friend Reed Birney seems to deliver a new pinnacle career performance with every new production that he graces. His work in 1984 as Big Brother’s torture-wielding master operative, O’Brien, is truly terrifying entirely because of Reed’s restraint. How does an actor walk the line between calm and vicious action so precisely that we feel the tension until it almost becomes unbearable? Reed demonstrates this exquisitely.

1984 did provide me with one tangential wisp of reassurance. O’Brien may be all-seeing, serenely all-knowing and dangerous as a snake, but he is fictional. Even as 1984 delivered its fearful wake-up slap, I found myself thinking that not every real-life authoritarian demagogue is as smart, capable and effective as a George Orwell character. This was, for me, a tiny, wishful, saving grace.