No one said totalitarianism was a walk in the park. But to the folks on opening night who walked out of the deeply disturbing and horrifying new adaptation of George Orwell’s sci-fi cautionary tale 1984— I don’t blame you. The show now onstage at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge adapted and directed by Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan is visually shocking and hauntingly acted, a nightmare of twisted reality, torture, and paranoia made flesh. So does it accomplish what it sets out to do? Absolutely.
An ominous low rumble is palpable as the lights come up on the Headlong, Almeida Theatre, and Nottingham Playhouse Production of Orwell’s futuristic vision of what is now the past, where language is praised for disintegrating, along with individuality; where sex is an act of civil disobedience and “Big Brother” has complete access to our thoughts via ubiquitous screens; where our children now loyal to the state are extensions of the thought police, turning in their “thought criminal” parents without a second thought.
The stage is bisected horizontally; at eye level, there’s a sterile dark wood-paneled room with hidden doors, and bounded by glass windows like screens to a corridor beyond; above, a huge screen hovers, the width of the stage, magnifying the action below. We are both Big Brother and those whom big brother watches. Winston (Matthew Spencer) is desperately, secretly trying to hold onto his own thoughts and perceptions as the action around him endlessly loops in a downward spiral of de-escalating consciousness and escalating tension.
Winston takes a chance and forms a fearful connection to Julia (Hara Yannas) and together they commit a rebellious political act. These two play their scenes like tightly coiled springs, their physical, emotional, and psychic energy poised to explode; we know damage will be done. The fallout is gruesome, the stage dismantled before our very eyes, as we enter the layer beyond the state-constructed reality and within the white glare of BIG BROTHER’s scrutiny. What transpires there is hideously cruel, frightening, and dehumanizing.
The directors and the genius creative team behind the curtain–design, sound, lighting, video– have masterfully manipulated our senses, and terrified us to the bone. It’s a deeply depressing experience which I hated because it was SO excruciatingly effective. What’s real? What isn’t? How do we hang onto the truth– and ourselves?? This adaptation makes these now hyper-relevant questions in an era of media saturation, slanted “news,” political correctness, and increasing surveillance acutely potent. Though in 2016 we’ve passed the deadline on Orwell’s appalling late 20th century vision, we dare not breathe a sigh of relief. As we are sucked into this production’s manipulated universe, we know full well, we are the problem. See 1984 at the A.R.T. through March 6.