OF COURSE George Orwell’s dystopian political fable 1984, first published in 1949, has strong relevance for our age. It has relevance for all ages.
It’s no surprise that the book leapt to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list the weekend that our current US President was being inaugurated. Or that the very word dystopia has also leapt into such common usage – and for many people has switched in application from describing some fantastical future to labeling our real life-present.
In its newly-opened (June 22nd) dramatization at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway, the sheer bloody horror in Orwell’s story is played up strongly. But so are the story’s all-pervasive and almost casually sinister dimensions. These are the everyday symptoms of a society where official surveillance is universal (it’s the origin, after all, of that “Big Brother is Watching” cliché) and government has shifted – full tilt, not just as a tendency – into autocracy.
It’s worth pointing out that Orwell’s drive to write his cautionary epics (this one, and also Animal Farm) had been prompted at least in part by his journalistic experience. Reflecting on his time covering the Spanish Civil War, he later wrote:
I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed … I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened, but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.
In applying themselves to the emotional sensation of 1984‘s dystopia, adapters and co-directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan present an almost unbearable assault on the audience – acoustically, visually, and sometimes viscerally.
But they also delve deep and hard into the intellectual morass created by that distortion of truth which so outraged Orwell in wartime. The depth becomes apparent as the “Everyman” figure, Winston Smith, grows appalled at his work in the government’s manipulation factory officially and just plain lyingly named “The Ministry of Truth”, and sets out to rebel against it.
The love-story at the heart of Orwell’s narrative is persuasively embodied in powerful performances by Tom Sturridge as Smith and Olivia Wilde as Julia, his fellow propaganda-worker turned co-subversive (pictured above).
They bring a deep gut-level appreciation to Orwell’s written dialogue when the audience (at least on the night I was there) gasps loudly at one particular distortion of fundamental values. Sturridge as Winston is being tested on how committed he is to rebellious action – no matter what the consequences – and is asked: “If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face – are you prepared to do that?” Sturridge’s answer, pausing only slightly, of “Yes” is what elicits the gasp.
But we also see Julia’s horror, in Wilde’s deftly-played, mounting but silent revulsion at her lover’s dehumanization. And we get to see it in close-up, thanks to the co-directors’ employment of video coverage. Rarely has the incorporation of video into a stage-play been handled so well; it effectively and discomfortingly puts us audience-members into the position of Big Brother’s perpetually monitoring Thought Police.
WHEN THINGS GO BAD – and in a dystopia it’s of course no spoiler to say that they do go bad, very bad indeed – the torture scenes are decidedly the worst to take. I recommend a seat in the upper levels of the Dress Circle or Balcony, since there is (of course there is) a vomiting scene during the excruciating torture episode. The torture-chamber’s floor (thanks to the virtuoso designer Chloe Lamford) is pristine white, and while those in Orchestra seats cannot fail to see the sudden dramatic emission, audience-members at higher levels and a downward point-of-view are additionally treated to the lasting image of vividly-colored vomit left starkly on the floor … as the torture inexorably continues.
I was carried along in the end by what initially seemed a jarring ‘framing’ device – cast members discussing the story retrospectively – as if now outside it. The dramaturgical trick was inspired (it seems right to believe) by Orwell himself having added an interpretative annex to the novel, thinly disguised as an essay on Big Brother’s fictive language “NewSpeak”. I was happy to take it as an underlining of the piece’s essential cautionary purpose; it’s possible, we are being told – thank God – that such a dystopia may after all be avoidable.
But there can be little to match Orwell’s own scene-setting device, which the play faithfully replicates, by beginning with a clock striking thirteen o’clock. What kind of a world are we now in for?