Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, is—simply put—astonishing, riveting, and almost literally shocking. The production puts you through 101 minutes of coiled, time-jumping action and doublespeak, culminating in the torture chamber Orwell called Room 101 with an interrogation which is—yes—brutally shocking.
Orwell’s cautionary novel has loomed large over almost seventy years, especially in times of authoritarianism upheaval. Like today. A consistent best-seller, there have been various adaptations over the years (including television versions in 1953 and 1954, feature films in 1956 and 1984, and a 2005 opera). Icke and Macmillan take us even further with their stage adaptation, which premiered in 2013 as a UK touring production by Headlong Theatre; enjoyed great success at the Almeida in London and on the West End; subsequently traveled the world; and is now making its Broadway debut at the resplendently reconfigured Hudson Theatre.
When Orwell published his futuristic novel back in 1949, he envisioned a society in which people “will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening.” That not quite brave new world, you might say, has arrived and it is us. Orwell’s creation has had an outsized influence, with various components—including his notion of “Big Brother”—becoming more than part of the vernacular. The author’s name itself has become an instantly identifiable adjective: Orwellian is to totalitarianism as Machiavellian is to evil and Nixonian is to… well, let us not digress.
The adaptors—who also directed—concentrate on the journey of Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), a worker at the so-called Ministry of Truth. As he begins to question authority, he writes a secret journal and joins a counter-revolutionary group; at the same time, he has a forbidden love affair with Julia (Olivia Wilde). There are no secrets, though. The affair takes place in a supposedly hidden bedroom out of sight and off camera; these offstage scenes, though, are beamed onto the stage wall of screens in full, larger-than-life-sized color.
Winston is duly captured and remanded to Room 101, where rebellion is violently obliterated from his conscious mind by party official O’Brien (Reed Birney). So much so that the phrase “2 + 2 = 5” will likely remain, graphically, in your memory. Icke and Macmillan frame their adaptation by making use of the epilogue-like extended essay (“The Principles of Newspeak”) that Orwell labeled an appendix to the novel.
Sturridge, who earned a Best Actor Tony nomination in 2013 for Orphans, carries the play as the researcher who “fixes” history by permanently altering old newspaper articles which don’t support the party line. (And no, Mr. Orwell, this couldn’t happen here…) He is well matched by Wilde, from TV’s “House,” as a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League who is secretly a free-thinking “rebel from the waist downwards.” Birney, late of The Humans and Man from Nebraska, gives yet another commanding performance as the grand inquisitor, wandering through the proceedings on the periphery before taking muscular control of the action and the stage.
The production concept is starkly realized by set and costume designer Chloe Lamford; everything is dark and drab in this non-Utopia, until such time as it is stunningly transformed into white (walls) accented by violent red. The chilling physicality is enhanced by the lighting (Natasha Chivers), video (Tim Reid) and sound (Tom Gibbons). The world of this 1984 is one which you’re not likely to forget, especially when the action turns wrenching. And this is not, mind you, a production for the sensitive or squeamish.
Leaving the Hudson, my resident high school student explained to me that 1984 is about the distortion of reality. “No,” I said, “it’s about current events.” “Sure, Dad,” said he. No question, though, that this is a remarkable and unforgettable jolt of high-voltage theatre.
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 opened June 22, 2017 and continues until October 8 at the Hudson Theatre