'1984' brings bleak terror to Broadway

REVIEW | The stage adaptation of Orwell's novel thrills with outstanding performances and special effects


Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge lead an excellent cast suffering under Big Brother.

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a difficult novel, tough and exhausting on the mind digesting it and on the characters acting it out. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's 1984 on Broadway is a difficult play to watch. It's not a night out on the town kind of show. It's not a show you walk out of humming the finale. 1984 wears down its audience as Big Brother wears down Winston Smith: sensory overload, conflicting realities and a nagging, lingering, growing hopelessness.

1984. (Facebook)

The show blends the futuristic 1984 that Winston (Tom Sturridge) inhabits with a time even further in the future, where (as in the book's appendix) people of the future discuss the implications of the book—Winston's diary, the novel as a work of nonfiction by him, the novel itself, etc. It all becomes very strange when Winston's failing "sanity" causes glitches in the party's reality and he sees and hears the people of the future discussing him.

The show uses its brief blackouts to bring whole sets of people onstage as if they suddenly appeared in Winston's confused reality. In the twisted chronology of the stage production, this creates a disorienting first fifteen minutes that might be even more disorienting if you've read the novel. What you expect to happen does not happen, not at first. But when it does, it does viciously, graphically and painfully.

The show achieves audience discomfort through its mangled realities and through its stage tricks and special effects. Watch Winston be thrown to the ground by a guard… then watch the guard take of his helmet to reveal that he is Winston. The glitches in reality come with tall, blinding LEDs and a thunderous electronic sound like a flash-bang explosion in Call of Duty combined with a malfunctioning subwoofer.

Will you vomit, pass out, have to leave? Probably not, unless you have a very weak stomach for blood (although I can't speak for the people in the front rows; that must be overwhelming). There was a lot more blood in Rupert Goold's American Psycho: The Musical last year.

You will feel uncomfortable, angry, hopeless and probably leave the theatre short of words. Winston, Julia (Olivia Wilde), O'Brien (Reed Birney) and the other characters rage and argue about truth, fact and the importance of words. As Newspeak threatens individual thought by eliminating all of the words that make it possible, Winston struggles to convince others of the existence of truth and of fact beyond the reality of the Party—of Big Brother.

To call the play "timely" is too easy—Orwell's novel still reads as a timely critique of big governments, wartime rhetoric and social control. "If you want a picture of the future," Birney's O'Brien says, quoting the novel, "imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever." As the show's future-people say, the book always feels relevant. It's been cinematized, commercialized and now acted out on Broadway.

More than its philosophical critiques, the play's performances will weigh on you afterward. It's strange to applaud what has happened onstage when the cast bows. Sturridge's Winston is a bit more helpless, more out of control than I imagined in the novel but that's part of the stage's visual interpretation of his (in)sanity. Olivia Wilde acts with furious energy as Julia, throwing herself around the stage as the anarchy to Winston's controlled subversion. Birney's careful, clear voice embodies the ultimate control of the Party.

The show might overuse its excellent special effects but only in the pursuit of audience immersion. Try not to fidget awkwardly when the house lights illuminate the audience as Winston pleads with them—with you. You are a part of the show, even after you've left the theatre.

If you've read the book, you'll remember its famous final sentence. When you've seen the play, you'll understand why the stage doesn't need it.

See '1984' at the Hudson Theatre before it closes in October. Follow on Twitter and Facebook.

Watch Olivia Wilde talk about her role as Julia below:


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