Sales of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, have skyrocketed since the inauguration of Donald Trump. It’s an apt moment for Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stage adaption to come to Broadway.
This dystopian world where hate is encouraged, language truncated to control ideas, and Big Brother monitors all through ubiquitous screens reverberates in the political moment. In this era of “alternative facts”, a knowing audience laugh comes from the lines, “Words matter. Facts matter”.
Icke and Macmillan’s production is structurally and visually daring. The audience is assaulted with piercing sound, blazing light and graphic violence. With live video and projections evoking Big Brother’s spying, the surveillance-themed design chills.
Someone is always watching Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge) but he secretly plots to rebel against the controlling Party and figurehead Big Brother. He falls for Julia (Olivia Wilde) who joins his fight. Together they approach O’Brien (Reed Birney) who appears to be covertly working for the resistance.
Icke and Macmillan employ a narrative framing around the play. Future readers of Winston’s book discuss it seemingly with Winston in the past. Repeating scenes, meta layering, and glitches in sound, light and language keep us pondering what reality is.
The production presents a gripping untrustworthy, unstable environment. Though the discombobulation is intentional, sometimes the direction leaves us struggling to decode incidents in the play.
Despite the disturbing universe created, Sturridge and Wilde are aloof and reveal less sympathy than their West End predecessors. But Birney brings a fearsome calm to his duplicitous role.