One of the most fascinating items on the Broadway scene is the current production of a British import, 1984. Co-adapted from the 1949 novel of George Orwell by Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, it stands as a powerful and frighteningly relevant, if somewhat fantastical, take on our world. When the novel first appeared in 1949, Orwell offered us his version of 1984, as he projected it to be 35 years in the future. Now, in the Macmillan-Icke adaptation currently running at the beautifully renovated Hudson Theatre, it is set fifty years from now, so it looks back 33 years to 1984. Orwell’s world is the result of a rise in far-right totalitarian political movements, when Thinkspeak was the new language and headlines screamed “War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, and Ignorance Is Strength.”
As the play begins, in the mid-21st Century, Winston Smith is starting a diary recounting his experiences in the peak years of his youth, when he was singled out for transformation into a member of The Party, which ruled everything and everyone. In the frightening year of 1984, Winston is engaged in an illegal, passionate love affair with Julia, who has also been living a life that is totally antithetical to everything she believes. When Winston and Julia leave the stage for some privacy, so they can indulge in some highly-charged and illegal sexual activity, we go with them and their scenes are played out on film.
As Big Brother has been watching, the two are caught and Winston has been selected for unspeakable torture so that he can be transformed into a Believer in Big Brother and The Party. He will survive so he can live long enough to present us with his diary, or we might never have known what havoc was introduced in George Orwell’s vision of the dangers that are being brewed even now.
A man simply called “O’Brien” is his mentor, his sponsor, who explains what the Party’s slogans mean. He tells Winston that if people remain in constant battle with non-believers, they will not quit The Party, for War is the only Peace. If they remain ignorant, they will not leave The Party; therefore, Ignorance is Strength. If they become slave to their lovers or to their own ideas, they will not accept that The Party’s one Idea is the only reality. The Party creates these slogans, and others, to ensure the continuation of their power and control.
O’Brien, Julia and Winston could not be in better hands. Reed Birney, Olivia Wilde (making her Broadway debut), and Tom Sturridge play the three central roles impeccably. Mr. Birney spouts his total conviction that his thoughts are not to be questioned, that they are the gospel. Elegantly dressed in cool gray, his logic is difficult to attack; when Winston resists, he commands protectively-suited guards to inflict gruesome torture upon him.
The original design team – Chloe Lamford (sets and costumes), Natasha Civers (lighting), Tom Gibbons (sound), and Tim Reid (video) – has joined Duncan MacMillan and Robert Icke to produce a multi-cultural epic that uses all its elements to great effect.
This piece is hardly “entertainment,” but it is engrossing, exciting, and interesting at all times. It is pure theatre all the way and, as such, one hopes it enjoys a successful run. Prepare yourself for some discomfort, but if you are interested in seeing how one writer envisioned our future if we don’t keep a constant vigil, 1984 is an experience you won’t want to miss.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.