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Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors


Cast of 1984. Photographer: Julieta Cervantes

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Always a harrowing tale, George Orwell wrote his dystopian classic, 1984, almost 70 years ago. Now at the Hudson Theatre, it is difficult to watch on many levels, the concept of living in a totalitarian state, under the eye of unseen Big Brother where thoughts  are crimes crushed by the "Thought Police." This non-linear account is jacked up with striking theatrics -- Chloe Lamford's basic sets, Natasha Chivers' disorienting light effects and sound design by Tom Gibbons and a liberal use of Tim Reid's live video feeds leading to a graphic finale of torture.

The most chilling part, however, is how apropos are Orwell's themes of "Ignorance is strength. War is peace. Freedom is slavery." We hear and read about ruthless dictatorships like North Korea, brutal deaths and kidnappings. Our own President is a definition of doublespeak, "newspeak" and "alternative facts." What is "believe me" one day is "fake news" the next.

Orwell's book was adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan McMillan, opening in London for four runs. The play incorporated the book's appendix so 1984 is challenging with indefinite dates and places that flash from past to future. It helps to have read the book and its appendix but viewers can sense what is to come and some audience members choose not to remain.

The English cast features Tom Sturridge, Winston Smith, slumped and reticent as a government writer suffering under the authoritarian regime. While his job is to rewrite history and erase reality as dictated by the power class, Tom, frustrated, believes, "There is truth and there are facts.” Winston interacts with other characters (played by Michael Potts, Wayne Duvall, Cara Seymour and Nick Mills) and share various interpretations of what is/what was going on in their incoherent world.

Interest picks up when a vivacious co-worker, Julia (Olivia Wilde in her Broadway debut), sharing Winston's dissatisfaction, hands him a secret note reading, "I love you." Love is a crime in Big Brother's society but Wilde does a credible job as a savvy and earthy young woman and she leads him into an affair. As they make love in a back room of an antique shop, their scenes are projected live on a large screen overhead.

Since the lurking Big Brother and "Thought Police" are on the lookout for radical thinkers, the couple is discovered and confronted by soft-spoken O'Brien, played by Reed Birney in an icy transformation of comrade turned party ruler. When he arrests Winston and brings him into the dreaded Room 101 (interestingly, the play's running time), he calmly dictates the savage torture to come, suggesting that Winston knows he can stop the pain by betraying the truth and his love. Like the love scenes, the series of brutality is projected on a large screen, increasing to a searing finale. At this point, more people exited the theater. It is certainly makes sense that audience members must be over 13 years old.

The staging of this version and capable acting punctuate the contemporary connections. It is hard not to relate them to the breaking news events of the Trump era, the torturing in prison camps, the unimportance of any person.  If there is not a literal Big Brother society, the concept is believable. 

Yet, as ghastly as the graphic torture scenes, this inhumane, "unpersoned" society of 1984, feels cold and stark.  There are often giggles in the audience, but this may be nervous laughter.  Or maybe it all hits too close to home and as O'Brien says, "The people...will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s really happening."

Hudson Theatre
141 - West 46 St. NYC.
Preview: Opening: June 22, 2017; Closing Oct. 10, 2017
Cast: Tom Sturridge, Olivia Wilde, Reed Birney, Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louis, Nick Mills, Michael Potts, Cara Seymour
Running time: 101 minutes. No intermission.
Written: Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's adaptation of George Orwell's 1984
Director: Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Note: An age restriction policy has been put in place which states that audience members must be age 13 to enter the Hudson Theater.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
July 2017

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