It’s entirely possible that producers Scott Rudin and Sonia Friedman – who’ve brought Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s frequently harrowing adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 to Broadway after three years in London and on the road – meant to parody the punitive Big Brother-like tone with the program insert that accompanies the Playbill. The giveaway is that “101 minutes,” an unsubtle reference to Room 101, the torture chamber described in the 1949 novel and made quite terrifyingly vivid on the present show. It also is possible that reports of patrons fainting in their seats, along with a last-minute press release sternly warning that “No theatergoers born after 2004 will be admitted to 1984,“ have been just so much ballyhoo to spur ticket sales along with an exceptionally striking media campaign.
Such hucksterism really is unnecessary, however. The show memorably reinvents one of the most terrifying tales of modern times, one that also happens to be among the best known, not only through the popularity of the novel, but in films – especially the 1984 version (!) starring John Hurt, Richard Burton and Suzannah Hamilton. And although the import of this limited run was prompted by the election of Donald J. Trump, the production makes no pandering attempt at relevance (as was the case with the recently closed Julius Caesar in Central Park). It lets Orwell speak for himself, and he does just fine, thank you, though in a distilled version that must make blatantly visual what the novel takes pains to incite in the consciousness.
That would be the story of Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge, Journey’s’ End, Pirate Radio), whose duties in the Oceania Ministry of Truth consist of deleting out of existence persons convicted of such crimes against the state as thinking, feeling and writing. Big Brother is forever watching on monitors that seem capable of invading mental as well as physical space. Winston’s fate essentially is set in motion when he, in an act of blatant resistance, decides to keep a diary; it’s sealed when Julia (Olivia Wilde, Vinyl, House) sneaks him a scrap of paper inscribed I LOVE YOU. Their ecstatic affair – which incorporates such forbidden erotica as coffee, chocolate and jam, along with sex – must end horribly, and it does, here, in Room 101, under the direction of O’Brien (Reed Birney, a Tony winner last year for The Humans). A brutal bureaucratic monster all the more horrific because of the empathy that leaches through the scar tissue of his own survival, O’Brien has perhaps the most terrifying, unsettling humanity of the three.
Icke and Macmillan frame the story of Winston and Julia with Orwell’s own device, an afterword to the novel in which a group of people, academics or book enthusiasts in 2050, debate the trustworthiness of the authorial narrative. The result is effective displacement of time and tale that is conveyed on Chloe Lamford and Tim Reid’s remarkable set and video scheme. The action takes place under a stage-wide screen of panels projecting well-known Newspeak aphorisms that have their own appalling resonance in the age of alternative facts and fake news. The jagged jarring lighting by Natasha Chivers and the thoroughly discomfiting sound design by Tom Gibbons expand the effect to the point of, though not beyond, intolerability.
Credit for that belongs equally to the stellar trio at the heart of the production. Sturridge has a jittery, piercing appeal as a man who believes his innermost fear is undiscoverable, only to learn otherwise in the show’s most horrific scene. Wilde has a contained abandon that emphasizes Julia’s revolutionary urges without caricature. And Birney proves once again to be a master of emotional concealment that works to expose; how else describe O’Brien’s bids for sympathy that, in another’s hands, might easily come across as merely false? He’s more compelling, and more disturbing, than any program insert, that’s for sure.