After President Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, George Orwell’s 1984 flew off the shelves. Two days later, when senior adviser Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” to defend Press Secretary Sean Spicer making false claims about Trump’s inauguration crowd size, those sales continued, rising a nearly unfathomable 9,500 percent. It would seem like there couldn’t be a better time for Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s 1984 stage adaptation — which takes place in a world where thoughts can be considered crimes, and there are a designated two minutes each day for citizens to spew hate at national enemies — to storm Broadway, after successful runs in both the U.K. and Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, whether it’s because the real world today is stranger than fiction (it’s worth noting that the show’s U.K. and L.A. runs happened pre-election) or because TV dystopias, like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, are already perfecting political dread, 1984 doesn’t have the same foreboding effect audiences might expect from a book that’s continually felt eerily prescient for decades. Still, the acting is phenomenal and the wildly innovative production makes for a memorable show — even if it isn’t quite as scary as the world outside the theater.
1984 follows Winston Smith (a nimble, riveting Tom Sturridge), a low-ranking government employee tasked with erasing records — and sometimes people, in an act called “vaporizing” — from history at the request of the Party. But Winston has a secret: He doesn’t believe all the propaganda the Party feeds the citizens of Oceania, and he’s bought an illegal diary to record his thoughts. There’s no one he can trust with these feelings because anyone could be a Party spy, although he senses he might have an ally in his colleague O’Brien (Reed Birney). He finds an unexpected partner in Julia (Olivia Wilde, swaggering and excellent in her Broadway debut), who — under the guise of being a chaste member of the Junior Anti-Sex League — enacts her own personal rebellions by sleeping with Party members, seeking pleasures the government works to suppress.
Winston and Julia begin an affair, renting out the back room of an antique shop where, shockingly, there appears to be no telescreen — the ubiquitous screens through which Big Brother and the Party both spy on and project messages to Oceania’s people. Obviously, the affair eventually comes to a close: 1984 isn’t known for having a happy ending.
A play doesn’t allow for quite the amount of world-building that can be accomplished in a book, so the full extent of Big Brother’s rule isn’t quite as rich as it is in Orwell’s original work. But the creative team has found new ways to bring the story to life, visually and sonically, with Chloe Lamford’s scenic design, Tom Gibbons’ sounds, Natasha Chivers’ lighting, and Tim Reid’s video design. As Winston slowly loses his mind, he’s constantly snapped in and out of consciousness by a blinding strobe light and ear-splitting sound effects. It’s physically painful every time — but that’s the point. And when Winston and Julia’s reverie is burst open, the set is broken apart before our eyes and rebuilt into the Ministry of Love, where the pair goes to get tortured by none other than O’Brien, who isn’t such a nice guy after all. Birney — who won a Tony Award last year for his role in The Humans — might be the scariest part of the show, bloodying and tormenting Winston with a clinical air and a detached boredom.
The videos especially are used to brilliant effect: When Winston writes in his diary, a camera in his desk lamp projects the pages onscreen. And we watch Winston and Julia’s trysts, played offstage, as a video on the telescreen, making the audience complicit in Big Brother’s spying. (Whether this was intentional or not, the bright lights outlining the faces of the crowd eerily calls to mind Apple’s 1984-inspired Macintosh commercial.)
There’s no intermission, which is appropriate: Taking a break from the horror might soften it. Still, watching 100 minutes of loud, high-energy terror has a bit of a numbing effect, too. And that’s part of the point, isn’t it? You can get used to anything, even a nightmare. B