George Orwell’s futuristic year for his 1949 classic “Nineteen Eighty-Four” has long since passed, and while in this country we are not yet in the horrific state of repression he described in the fictional country of Oceania, the warning signs are tragically upon us. They are forcefully touched upon in the searing, well-acted version of the Orwell work adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan and now at the Hudson Theatre.
The most apparent parallel for today is the concept of an authoritarian government defining what is true in this age of alternative facts and fake news. When poor Winston Smith is brutally interrogated—and I mean brutally in an unnerving torture session—he is asked to agree that if the government says that four fingers are five, he must accept it. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to think of Donald Trump’s patent lies that he asks us to think are true.
The stakes, of course, are much higher in Orwell’s vision of a regime that suppresses all dissent at the pain of death, devalues language with “Newspeak” and has Big Brother ever watching. We are not at that stage, but the play’s warning message is loud and clear, especially as presented in this caustic and properly unsettling production.
Tom Sturridge as Winston starts off as a meek employee in the Ministry of Truth with the task of cleaning history to conform to official versions. He knows something is wrong, but what can he do about it? Ultimately, he tries to resist, both in his mind and in his stubbornness, and in the ultimate scenes of the play, he attempts to hold on to his independence under the interrogation by the superb actor Reed Birney as the smooth-talking, frightening O’Brien, who orders escalating torture. Sturridge’s entire body writhes with pain as he is increasingly bloodied, and he makes us feel deeply for him as an Everyman trapped in the web of fascism. Both Sturridge and Birney give remarkable performances defining `the individual against the state.
Olivia Wilde excels in the key role of Julia, who becomes Winston's lover, and symbolizes the one element that is supposed to remain constant no matter what—love. She blends both ferocity and sexuality in the relationship that develops. But there is the eventual betrayal that is devastating. We see the love scenes between them projected on a huge screen that hovers at the rear of the stage.
As a matter of fact, much happens on this screen. Projection (video design by Tim Reid) is a key part of the production, as are the technical aspects that add immeasurably to the overall brutal mood. The lighting (design by Natasha Chivers) and the sound (design by Tom Gibbons) are vital, controlling elements in communicating what we are meant to feel. The same can be said of the stark set (design by Chloe Lamford, also responsible for costume design).
The staging has the chilling effect that it is meant to have, and the torture scenes can send shivers down one’s spine. (One must be at least 13 years old to attend a performance.) It so happens that I had just read in the New York Times the story in which two outsourced individuals credited with designing torture for he C.I.A., including waterboarding, rationalized their work as following orders. (Where have we heard that before?)
I found it interesting and encouraging on the night I saw “1984’ to see so many young adults in the audience. The novel has been a staple in schools, and in this Trump era, sales have grown, which would explain special interest in the play.
The adaptation contains some new lines designed to make a contemporary connection, but they are superfluous. The reason why Orwell’s work has endured is because of its inherent global relevance. This theatrical version touches the right bases, and with the combination of fine acting all around and the vigorous use of staging technique, it becomes a memorable, terrifying experience that is both emotional and food for thought in today’s world. At the Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th Street. Reviewed June 25, 2017.