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         Photos by Julieta Cervantes



                            By Ron Cohen


First published nearly seven decades ago, George Orwell’s novel of a totalitarian dystopia, 1984, can still chill your bones with its depiction of things that may come – and may have already arrived on our doorstep: the dumbing-down and mechanization of language; evocation of mass hatred; omnipresent electronic surveillance; everlasting but distant war against shifting enemies; the eradication of individualism, and a demand for total allegiance – or “loyalty,” as some like to say these days -- to those in power. Name your deepest fears – political and otherwise -- and 1984 may well have it covered.


Now, in a brilliant adaptation by Robert Icke, associate director of London’s Almeida Theatre, and playwright and director Duncan Macmillan, Orwell’s work emerges on the stage as a gut-clutching, brain-tingling piece of theatre, a cunning mélange of Grand Guignol and razor-sharp political drama.


Icke and Macmillan have also co-directed, filling the work with an abundance of spectacular stagecraft, making it a worthy contender for Broadway’s astronomical ticket prices. The show pulsates with sense-crushing sound design (by Tom Gibbons) and lighting design (by Natasha Chivers). Gigantic video projections pull the audiences up close into the play’s intimate love scenes, enacted off-stage (Tim Reid did the video design). There’s a momentous, breath-taking set change, accompanied by costumes that smack of fearsome science fiction (Chloe Lamford did both sets and costumes.) And most importantly, there’s a cast that gives just about every moment its full value of intensity and meaning.


Tom Sturridge plays Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, a worker in the government’s Ministry of Truth. His job is the redoing of history – as told in newspaper reports and photographs – to conform with government dogma and its current version of truth. But within Winston, there’s a growing allegiance to the importance of reality and growing doubts about the powers that be and its overbearing, always-watching, perhaps fictional leader, Big Brother. While it’s a deed punishable by death, Winston takes to writing a diary with the aim of conveying to whatever or whomever the future is a true picture of life in 1984.


Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge


When Winston and Julia, a co-worker who has become his lover, connect with a group that claims to be underground revolutionaries, the two are quickly arrested by the Thought Police, whose job is to reshape them into unquestioning subservient tools of the state. How this is accomplished through torture is terrifying visual stuff. Even more terrifying are the dialectics put forth by Smith’s interrogator, O’Brien, a member of the ruling Inner Party determined to cure Winston of his “insanity.”


Tom Sturridge abd Reed Birney


Sturridge endows Winston with an appealing everyman combination of befuddlement, earnestness and courage, as he becomes increasingly aware of the evil duplicity of the government. It’s a performance that reaches heroic heights as the character attempts to withstand the physical horrors heaped on him, even though, in the long run, his will to resist collapses.


Olivia Wilde makes Julia a magnetic presence, switching back and forth instantaneously, as the situation requires, from robotic party apparatchik to a sensuous, caring woman dangerously in love. Reed Birney’s O’Brien is a quietly masterful manifestation of unyielding intimidation and frighteningly transparent empathy. His presence alone seems to turn the sterile, blazingly-lit room in which he works totally toxic.


Among briefer but notable portrayals, Wayne Duvall makes believable a hearty government booster whose loyalty never wavers even after his own daughter turns him into the authorities for a slip of the tongue. As his hysterical wife, Cara Seymour adds to the intensity of mood, while Michael Potts give a supposedly kindly shopkeeper just the right amount of ominous shading.


Much of what Orwell wrote about was inspired by the tactics of the Soviet Union, and the current rebirth of a rampant nationalism throughout Europe and here, has given the book a new surge of attention. The script gives a nod to this, offering a provocative context; it places some scenes in the future, where Winston’s diary has been discovered and is now studied as a relic of the past. The regime of Big Brother has ended, we’re told, and an open society prevails. However, it’s an ambiguous situation, as one of the characters suggests at the close that the current state of affairs may only be a strategy of the Inner Party waiting to exert tyrannical power again. And it’s an apt note of warning, a call to vigilance, and an appreciative bow to the lasting importance of Orwell’s work, whatever the current political climate is like.


It’s a work, of course, that shows up regularly on the lists of all-time fiction classics, and many of its terms as well as its very title have long been widely used as synonyms for malevolent authority and its strategies. Still, it is possible – though unlikely -- that some audiences might come into the Hudson Theatre with no knowledge at all of the book, and for those audiences there may well be points of confusion as the play gets underway. But even for those folks, it’s probable that the production’s intensity, showmanship and intelligence will eventually get them glued into their seats to the end…that is, unless they find the climactic sequence of Winston’s graphic reorientation to Big Brother devotion too gruesome to witness.


Broadway play

Playing at the Hudson Theatre

139-141 West 44th Street



On sale through October 8