Opening Night of ‘1984’ at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre
My Two Cents
by Carol Biederstadt
It may have taken 68 years, but George Orwell finally made it to the big stage of Broadway when Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s 1984 opened at New York’s Hudson Theatre on June 22nd. Premiering in the UK in 2013, the production has had four successful UK runs as well as tours in Australia and the American cities of Santa Monica, Boston, and Washington. Current politics have made Nineteen Eighty-Four a hot commodity in 2017, and with sales of the book soaring and theatrical and cinematic performances – even marathon readings of the novel – being presented all over the US and around the world, the time was ripe for this production to take center stage on Broadway.
With so many recent renditions of a story already so widely known – it was required reading for many of us, after all – the challenge becomes making the production fresh and hewing out a unique, if subtle, angle that forces the viewer to rethink the story from a slightly different perspective, and this is clearly what Icke and Macmillan, who adapted the novel and directed the play, set out to accomplish. Unique among adaptations of the book, this one hones in on the novel’s oft-ignored Appendix, “The Principles of Newspeak”, for new direction in piloting the narrative. Glancing at the written play, published by Oberon in 2013 and distributed, courtesy of the publisher, to ticket holders on opening night, I noticed a preface fittingly labeled “Foreword: Appendix”, demonstrating Icke and Macmillan’s aptitude for Doublespeak while at the same time foreshadowing that which later sets this adaptation apart from any other. Pointing out that Orwell’s Appendix is “fiction pretending to be fact” written sometime post-2050, the duo mine this trove, drawing from it the inspiration for an original framing device in which the play begins and ends with a discussion among members of a book club.
The energy inside the packed Hudson Theatre was palpable on opening night. Glitterati peppered the audience, prompting much neck craning in all directions, but for true fans of Orwell and his dystopian masterpiece, the highlight of the pre-curtain time commotion was surely finding out that the writer’s own son, Richard Blair, was in attendance. Having flown in from the UK just the previous evening, Blair graciously granted interviews, shook hands, and posed for photos beside a giant “Big Brother Is Watching You” sign before and after the play. Commenting on the resurgence of interest in the novel and its relevance to the present time, Blair stated that his father “would have been pleased that his warning had not been ignored, if not always acted upon!”
Just before curtain time, an ominous rumble like an impending earthquake beckons people to their seats, and the story begins. In a nondescript wood-paneled room, members of a book club – played by the same actors who later assume the major roles of the play – discuss, presumably, Winston Smith’s diary some 100 years after it was written. Yet the scene is disorienting: “Written by someone who knew he’d soon be dead” and other comments about the book seem as applicable to Orwell as they do to Smith. Commenting on this to one of the directors after the play, Duncan Macmillan points out that the scene could also be interpreted as being about Goldstein’s book or even about Winston Smith during a moment of Thought Crime, possibilities I had not considered. Adding to the uncertainty, a befuddled-looking Smith, who would have been long dead when this gathering takes place, sits among these other characters as they discuss him and even address him directly at one point. The message is clear: nothing can be trusted; truth and reality are not subject to objective definitions (no Doublespeak intended). Exploring the assumptions behind the Appendix is a brilliantly unique and compelling approach to the novel but one that at times makes the dramatization confusing, particularly for those unfamiliar with the story.
Icke and Macmillan forgo the world-weary, ulcer-ankled, middle-aged Winston Smith, reinventing the character by casting the diminutive, soft-spoken, boyish Tom Sturridge (Journey’s End, Pirate Radio) in the lead role. Questioned about this choice, Macmillan explains that not only was a younger actor better able to meet the physical demands of this role, but that he felt an older, tired-looking Winston would be too unbelievable, too obviously “Thought Police” when playing opposite the beautiful Olivia Wilde (Vinyl, House), who made her Broadway debut in the role of Julia. In an innovative twist, the production makes the unwitting audience complicit with Big Brother: harnessing technology to accentuate the mood of surveillance, the couple’s goings-on in Charrington’s secret room take place out of view, transmitted instead on a huge screen above the stage, rendering us all voyeurs. Yet despite the effort to create a convincing pairing, the relationship lacks passion, and even their coupling seems somehow more violent than tender, and it is not until an ominous voice interrupts them, saying “You are the dead” that suspense and panic peak.
Cast as the inscrutable O’Brien, Reed Birney (The Humans) seems to have been born to play this role. Calm and avuncular while savage and sadistic, O’Brien’s cucumber-cool presence in the Room 101 scene is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the entire play – scarier than any rats could ever be. Yet never allowing Birney’s first-rate performance to overshadow him, Sturridge is at his most convincing playing opposite his tormentor. But it’s a difficult scene to watch.
Impossible to sit passively as Winston is tortured, viewers suffer along with him, emotionally and sensorily clobbered from all angles. Terror envelops the theater as ghastly figures in white hazmat suits and black goggles surround the quivering Winston whose fingertips are about to be amputated. The theater is plunged into darkness when the mutilation takes place, but the screams and gory aftermath alone are enough to churn the stomach. Many attendees, unable to endure any more, bury their faces in horror when O’Brien later commands his ironically clad enforcers, their protective suits already blood-soaked, using a single nightmarish word: “Teeth!” Punctuating the torment, a grinding, grating, mechanical cacophony assaults the cochlea in decibels that seem to hover around the threshold of pain, while blinding bursts of high-intensity light, wielded like flash grenades, assault the retina. So harrowing is the experience for the audience that Olivia Wilde actually tweeted well-wishes to several viewers who fainted during the previews, and at an earlier performance (a preview) I attended before opening night, my eyes were drawn to a young boy in the second row who sat face down, ears plugged, his mother covering his eyes for most of the second half of the show. When I mentioned this to Duncan Macmillan after the play, he acknowledged that while on stage, some of the actors were not only aware of the child’s distress but deeply troubled by it, prompting the production to initiate a ban on children born after 2004 from attending the performance. Some later dismissed this ban as ticket-selling hype, but having witnessed firsthand the child’s reaction, I’d say it was a good call. Personally weary of the current prevalence of safe spaces and trigger warnings, even I am forced to concede the necessity of warning viewers: this production is powerful and riveting, but it is surely not for the queasy, noise-sensitive, or faint-of-heart. This one hits you in the gut. Hard.
Leaving the theater, however, it was a small thing that lingered with me – a subconscious defense mechanism, perhaps – but hurray for anything that helps lessen the post-1984 funk. For me, one of the very things that made this play so absorbing and unique – its exploration of the Appendix focusing on Newspeak – inadvertently played a role in making the dialogue feel at one point implausible. Early in the play, Syme extols the virtues of Newspeak and its destruction of words. Of words slated for elimination, Syme says:
It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good’, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not.
Oddly, I had an almost visceral reaction to hearing Syme’s reasoning, a response I never had when reading the exact same words in the novel; “What?” I thought, taken aback. “Propose getting rid of the unassuming ‘bad’, yet in the same sentence use the hoity-toity ‘well’, a word only steps behind ‘whom’ in its march to the lexical graveyard of American English? Can Syme truly be advocating the expulsion of the straightforward and utilitarian antonym of adjective ‘good’ while retaining and using its frou-frou irregular adverbial form, a word already eschewed by much of the younger generation? Gedouddahere!”
Now first off, to be fair, I realize that Syme had merely used the word “well” and was not arguing in favor of its retention in Newspeak, nor was he speaking the fully distilled Newspeak projected for 2050. Had he been, as Orwell’s Appendix tells us, he would have substituted the word “goodwise” for “well.” (An American Newspeak, I contend, would likely have opted for “goodly”; indeed, the American preference for “-ly” adverbs can even be seen in the President’s use of adverb “bigly.” But I digress . . .)
Secondly, I admit that stereotypes about my own dialect may be rearing their ugly heads here, but knee-jerk reactions are what they are and cannot be contained or challenged by reason. Simply put, logic be damned, these lines didn’t work for me, and it got me thinking: does this mean the lines need to be delivered in RP to resonate with my uncouth ears? And does this further suggest that even Newspeak might have divided into British and American dialects? One can only imagine, but had I seen this play in London with its original British cast, I suspect Syme’s words would have seemed unremarkable. Yet hearing the same lines delivered in American English by a young-ish American actor somehow failed to ring true for me. I may just be one easily distracted by minutiae, and it is also possible that I simply spend too much time with hoi polloi, though, so don’t trust me: do your own research. Ask a few young Americans: “How are you?” and see how they respond.
A strictly limited engagement running at the Hudson Theatre until October 8, 2017, this powerful production is current and relevant. See it if you dare, but take it from me: unless you have a really strong stomach, skip the dinner. A stiff drink afterwards is all you will need.
Photographs by Carol Biederstadt. This article is based on Ms Biederstadt’s attendance at both a Preview and the Opening Night of the play.
We thank Duncan Macmillan and Richard Blair for speaking to us.
The Orwell Society does not endorse any eating establishments beyond the fictitious Moon Under Water.