To experience 1984, playing through Oct. 18 at the newly renovated Hudson Theatre, is to be a participant in one of the most twisted acts of bearing witness and trauma.
The claustrophobic and up-to-date production from adapters and directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan bridges the gap between George Orwell’s seminal warning of state-manufactured passive thought and the echoes it bears today in the rekindled fears of an Orwellian world.
Icke and Macmillan frame the story as a rediscovery of the events of the novel. As a group of readers crowd to discuss the ramifications and merit of protagonist Winston Smith’s diary, the audience finds itself in an incredibly similar role, only with a much more visceral, upfront perception.
Make no mistake, 1984 is filled with echoes and strange, haunting revisitations of scenes and memories, as well as reverberations of thought in which Smith begins to detect something about to burst.
Adaptations are a tricky fare, requiring not only that the text be brought forth in a new body, but also that the confines of the work be recreated and expanded.
Icke and Macmillan’s understated, deceptively calm staging in the first hour of the show does precisely that, only to rocket into the well-calculated psychological mayhem so infamously wrought in the original novel.
That mayhem is well-inflicted on this production. Smith, the fragile and corporately exhausted Tom Sturridge, who gives dystopian literature’s most famous victim an almost-on-the-edge layer of dust that he cannot seem to quite shake off.
This Smith, however, is a bit more passive than the one in the original novel, as if he needs much more than a shove to bring him into the full-fledged mental rebellion against the Party.
That shove is brought by Olivia Wilde’s character, Julia, taking control of her body and her desires as a “rebel from the waist-down,” despite her mark of membership in the Junior Anti-Sex League.
Their affair brings to Smith a new vocabulary with which to define the body he knows as “Winston Smith,” away from the two minutes of permitted rage against an enemy in a regularly televised-yet-unseen conflict.
Their blissful, shadow-lighted passions are rendered by Natasha Chivers, on light design, and telecasted to all necessary and unwanted viewers by video designer Tim Reid.
With a quick burst of light barely illuminating the occasional mysterious, anxiety-crinkling figure, or the strobe light hysterics of Smith’s eventual torture and state-mandated trauma, the shadows of stage quickly evolve from a refuge for the story’s two main rebels against the Party into a complete sensual assault.
The latter half of the show’s action in a pure-white interrogation room is painful to watch on account of both the incredibly graphic torture as well as the sheer brightness imposed upon the audience. The sound of drones and alarms and low-level buzzing crescendos into an all-out cacophony, courtesy of sound designer Tom Gibbons.
Winston’s blood spat across the floor provides the little relief in the heinously designed sequence, all commanded by Reed Birney’s helpful bureaucrat and later traitor, O’Brien. It is O’Brien who finally hammers home the reason 1984 returned to such prominence in the modern political age.
In the final moments of the show, the lights come up and the audience becomes the ultimate witness to the summation of a world where lies are easily manufactured, people are erased via Siri-like voice-controlled assistants and where all thought is controlled.
Terror aside, it is the sudden crash of awareness that makes Icke and Macmillan’s conceptualization of Orwell’s novel truly something to behold in its entirety and recoil in its potential foresight.
While the sales of the original book may have skyrocketed following the election of President Donald Trump, it can be difficult to imagine the world Smith lives in without having some sort of frame of reference.
The empathetic response intended to be bestowed upon the audience is one that readers may have trouble taking in.
The production is not perfect with the long, painful pauses standing side-by-side with a few boring, contemplative stops in the 100-minute runtime. Wilde and Sturridge’s thought-criminals are sometimes a little demure in their rebellion and for some, the show may be too confrontational in terms of the presentation of its material.
However, 1984 is granted a knowing sensibility and a chilling familiarity by its adapters, who are well-aware that the audience at least has a passing reference in their mind to the novel.
The show also benefits from the fact it is not presented directly as a warning, but as a terrifying recollection of a time where anyone could be confronted with their worst fears and given ample room to recollect how much they have been broken and how little they feel they could do in the face of a totalitarian regime.
It is during this personal shattering that a glimmer of hope emerges in the show’s final minutes, the most noticeable differentiation from Orwell’s seminal text.
In these final moments the discoverers of Smith’s diary discuss the better, censor-free future they live in, but with a deep and stinging confusion as to how such a horrific world came to be in the first place.
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