Broadway Review – “1984” – “There is truth, and there are facts.”
Old drama, new relevance in the era of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and our iffy existence. Starring Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde, this Orwellian adaptation will shake you the fuck up!
You don’t have to travel to the Hermit Kingdom or the Caliphate, or Putin’s Russia, or Banksy’s Dismaland to get a whiff of what it’s like to exist in a cruel and crusty old authoritarian state. George Orwell’s ominous and ever-engrossing prophecy can now be experienced first hand at midtown’s Hudson Theater.
That seminal 1949 novel, a staple in political pop culture and required reading in virtually every high school and college curriculum (you got the Cliffs Notes, remember?!), is really, really en vogue lately (re: Donald Trump/NSA dragnets/Russian collusion hysteria, etc.), coinciding with concerns about the revival of many irksome isms — fascism, totalitarianism, authoritarianism, subjectivism, etc. The production is perfectly timed, and jibes well with the endless gush of ‘fake news’ and ‘alt facts‘ narratives that talking heads and politicians peddle every day in the press.
Starring the terrific Tom Sturridge (“Orphans”) and Olivia Wilde (“The OC” and “Vinyl” — we’re glad to see Olivia in something this awesome…and it’s her Broadway debut!…and her short hair looks really good!), the play follows Winston Smith and Julia, two starry-eyed romantics with reactionary impulses and subversive streaks, as they skirt Oceania’s omnipresent surveillance state (Oceania is Orwell’s fictitious totalitarian country that, in an art imitates life kinda way, corresponds to today’s political hanky-panky — be it Raqqa, Pyongyang, Moscow or the White House). The two fall hopelessly in love and perpetrate umpteen tiny acts of disobedience and treason against the mendacious ‘Ministry of Love,’ a state apparatus that snuffs out all romantic pursuits (in Oceania, you’re only allowed to have feelings for Big Brother, of course).
The creators, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, who adapted the play from the London curtain-raiser, assume that viewers are well aware of the political trappings of Oceania, and have an acquaintance with Orwell’s original supposition and syntax, including terms that have entered the everyday lexicon like “doublethink,” “newspeak,” “thoughtcrime”, “Big Brother”, and “non-objective truths”, etc.
Segueing in non-linear fashion from Winston’s early seditious thoughts to Oceania’s overloads interpreting the cryptic stuff in his diary, the performance critically incorporates Orwell’s rich under-read appendix to the novel, a retrospective analysis of the linguistic structures and language of totalitarianism — often dubbed ‘newspeak’ or, in today’s variant, ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts,’ à la Kellyanne Conway.
There are visceral torture scenes that make for an ultra-violent and nerve-jangling spectacle (the heavy scene even triggered a seizure in one audience member sitting next to VIVISXN, and the show slackened for a hot sec). The producers expertly employ disorienting and trippy audio-visual effects — light and sound disruptions that fuck with your head, depictions of a severely sadistic state brutalizing its subjects, and the complete obliteration of mental and emotional faculties. The atmospherics are eerie and insane. The impact is beyond powerful.
“Winston, do you know where you are?” asks an ominous voice, perhaps emanating from his subconscious, perhaps from ours. Of course we’re all in a post-postmodern place, a perennially paranoid system that sustains and nourishes itself by way of propaganda/disinformation, the Ministry of Truth, and the infamous Room #101 — a hellish place that makes your worst fears come to life and eviscerates your spirit. We see and watch Winston’s tender side, as he falls for Julia and the unfolding of their intense and illicit love affair (shown by way of a super-cool mixed-media simulcast vid); we see the couple get duped and destroyed by a spooky heart-breaker called O’Brien (Reed Birney), an Inner Party apparatchik who faintly looks like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove combined.
But wait, are the events unfolding really real, or is this all a hallucination/simulacrum orchestrated by Big Brother? Is Winston brainwashed to the point of psychosis? Are we psychotic? Did an audience member actually suffer a seizure or was it staged by the PR team? And who is that creepy little girl who periodically pops out onto the stage? We get to tune into Winston’s warped train of thought, his ambivalence toward external ‘reality’ and his subjective self-awareness. Philosophical notions of false consciousness, social conformity and phenomenology pour out of the production; perhaps life is just a Potempkin construct that is too perplexing for lamebrains like us.
There is a palpable air of ambiguity and psychological distortion that the story cleverly uses to probe our own ideological and ontological beliefs. It is a theatrical device that makes us question the nature of reality, of existence and our own integrity. This fuzziness of fact — the question of ‘objective truth’ — is the production’s most ingenious quality. There are some terrifying parallels about technology, too. “The people will not revolt, they will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening,” goes the punch line towards the end. In 2017, “1984” resonates louder than ever. This play is fucking genius, hands down. See it asap!
Playing now at the Hudson Theater, 139 W. 44th St., New York City
VIVISXN MEDIA – Pop Culture + Politics + Theater