Thursday, June 22, 2017


The stage version of George Orwell's 1984, grippingly adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, might not be the masterpiece the book is, but it's pretty damned good just the same. It's beautiful to look at, slickly performed, jarringly paced, and terrifying. It also has the ability to fuck with your head in much the same way the book does. Well, I can't speak for your head, I guess, but I can certainly attest to mine.

Much of the novel makes it into the swift stage adaptation. So too does the book's famously unfamous appendix, The Principles of Newspeak, which Orwell worded to seem as if it had been written several decades following the events described in the novel. I don't think I'm in the minority in admitting to have never before glanced at said appendix, despite having read the book twice. For the stage, Icke and Macmillan, who also direct, use the appendix as a framing device. As the play begins--some fifty years after the reign of Big Brother, and presumably long after the Party has fallen--a group of people sit, seminar-style, around a long table and discuss who Winston Smith was, what his world was like, and why newspeak never overtook oldspeak as the common vernacular.
Set in a generic room that eventually becomes, at various points, Winston's drab apartment where he decides to keep a diary, the Ministry of Information where he spends his days erasing history, and the front of the antique shop where he and Julia rendezvous, the opening moments of the production are purposely disjointed and confusing. Why do the characters studying the book believe Smith was real? Is the audience supposed to believe Smith was real? Why don't they know who Orwell was? Why are certain things they do performed over and over again, with subtle changes each time?  And why does the shadowy figure who walks down the frosted-glass hallway behind the room seem so sinister if this is just a lively, engaging seminar?

The confusion doesn't stop with the prologue, and this is very much in keeping with the book. It's also part of what make both book and adaptation so profoundly unsettling. Totalitarianism is, after all, meant to be absolutely all-encompassing, and the Party described in 1984 takes the approach so seriously that world history is rewritten, language is curtailed, rules are blurred and morality muddled. The government keeps its citizenry in a state of nearly infantile confusion and under constant surveillance, thereby not only controlling every move that the population makes but frequently anticipating it. To that end, then: does the Party know of Wilson's rat phobia because they know everything about everyone? Or did they plant the fear in him in the first place?

Because a play, unlike a book, cannot feature pages upon pages of florid description or character subtext, the stage adaptation only adds to the book's disquieting sense of confusion and uncertainty. Winston, played with a dazed and stupified wariness by Tom Sturridge, is a deer caught in headlights, and his fate--just as soul-crushingly inevitable as it is in the book--only seems sadder and more inevitable. This is especially the case since Julia (a sharp, stark Olivia Wilde) is much harder to read, here: Is she really drawn to Winston? Or is she just another player in his elaborate entrapment? Similarly, O'Brien is played with such levelheaded calm and appealing surety by the brilliant Reed Birney that he might just possibly be a good guy even though you know he's not...right? Maybe? Just for a second? You know, the way sometimes, just for a second, two and two make five?

Then there are the beautifully slick production values of 1984, which lure in especially insidious and disturbing ways. Lights flick off and plunge the theater into pitch darkness, or burst on in a near-condemnation of the audience. Crisply resonant sounds echo, explode, startle. Walls fold in on themselves in ways that are both dazzling and somehow gorgeously violent. Projected images--of Winston's diary pages, the quaint back room of the antique shop, an execution during the brilliantly staged and deeply unsettling two-minutes hate--are simultaneously awful and beautiful enough to become squirmily seductive. After over an hour of such nimbly attractive stagework, the scene in Room 101--a plain white space featuring comparatively few special effects and bodies moving in relatively straightforward direction--struck me as positively mundane. It could, I found myself thinking, be much more visually appealing: maybe there could be more projections on the walls--of rats, perhaps--or sound effects that could be louder and more sudden, Maybe this scene, too, could become somehow more spectacular.

Then I stepped back from my own thoughts, realized that I was watching a scene of extensive and grisly torture of a human being, and critiquing ints lack of slick snazziness--and I have yet to forgive myself for it.

So. I'm not going to lie: like the book, the adaptation of 1984 is tough stuff. Word is that the show has its own in-house nurse because people have fainted while (or right after) watching it. The show is quite graphic in its depiction of a deeply oppressive government that controls its citizenry totally, and thus sometimes in brutish and bloody ways. Children under 13 are not admitted to the production, and I find myself agreeing with that call.

But perhaps because 1984 is running at a time when we as a nation are suddenly, constantly questioning so much--what is real and what are lies; what is becoming of our civil liberties, our constitution, our very humanity--I found the production almost cathartic. We haven't hit Big Brother territory, for sure: war is not yet peace, freedom is not yet slavery, and two and two still equal four. Still, we're in a dark and scary place, and for all we know, Big Brother is watching us. I find myself weirdly grateful to this production for acknowledging as much.

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