Frankly, it isn’t that scary.
And I’m the kind of guy who shuts his eyes tight whenever I’m subjected to even a TRAILER for a horror movie.
But for all the talk of “Kids under 13 not admitted” and the scuttlebutt that 1984 could give a high-blood pressure victim a stroke — or at least a sudden vomiting attack — Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s classic is far milder than it could be.
Playgoers who enjoy being scared to almost-death might actually emerge from the Hudson Theatre disappointed. However, if you’re one who does get easily terrified, the Hudson’s extra-wide seats – the most commodious on Broadway – offer enough room for you to retreat into the fetal position.
Strangely enough, the moment that scared me the most wasn’t when the blood was flowing from Winston Smith’s battered face or the infamous and sadistic scene that follows. I felt chills when the citizens of Oceania were watching television and cheered a televised execution as if it were a mere Madison Square Garden boxing match.
But that’s Oceania in the year 1984. Whether or not you’re frightened by Icke and Macmillan’s script (or their co-direction), you’ll find plenty of characters on stage who indeed are, not to mention as confused as the Korean War veterans in the original THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.
The play begins in an office where, when a light switch is turned on and the bulb doesn’t work, no one’s surprised.
Big Brother – i.e., the government – hasn’t given his “siblings” an affluent or efficient society. Eventually the set will have a bit in common with the ill-fated one for THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG.
More than that is wrong in this time and place that has even decreed that keeping a diary an illegal act. “There is no possibility of truly knowing everything,” as government employee Winston observes. He should know, for his job is to rewrite history in the most revisionist fashion that pleases B.B.
Orwell didn’t invent the phrase “alternative facts” – we all know who did earlier this year – but it’s one that would be right at home in this play. While watching 1984, you may well think of 2017 when Winston blurts out “Facts matter! The truth matters.”
When an office worker passes by, glances into the window but then stops walking and stares, is it his mere curiosity or his wondering if he’ll see an incriminating act? Or is the passer-by HOPING that he’ll see an incriminating act? Wouldn’t THAT get him in good with Big Brother? Those television screens in every room – all the better to see you with, my dear – should be playing that ‘50s game show “Who Do You Trust?”
People come and go so quickly here! Such developments don’t bother Winston’s co-worker Parsons, who takes great pride in how well his daughter has become a Big Brother booster.
“She’s a Thought Police in the making,” says actor Wayne Duvall, chilling us with his chuckle and fatherly pride. “Amazing how much they know and how much they pick up on.” Yes, as Stephen Sondheim reminded us three years after the actual 1984, “Children will listen.”
And a little child – simply called Child — will lead them right into the hands of the authorities if she has a chance. Child thinks nothing of accusing Winston with the utmost certainty that she has every right and reason to indict him.
(Two girls alternate as Child; Sami Bray makes her character so wicked that she could pass for a reincarnated leader of the Hitler Youth.)
“Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every day,” Winston’s co-worker Syme says. Nick Mills keeps us guessing whether his character fully approves or merely ACTS as if he actually believes that an “Un” in front of a word (e.g., “good” and “ungood”) is all one needs to convey information. We see from Winston’s face that he sees it as a variation on divide-and-conquer.
Tom Sturridge’s Winston confusedly squints a lot during the first quarter of the 101-minute intermissionless production. Then Julia enters his life, surprising both him and us by showing an interest in him. Orwell made us more interested in her, for she’s the sharper of the two, and Icke and Macmillan have followed suit.
Winston and Julia spend the night together and confide in each other. So the usual uneasiness that follows the morning after a one-night-stand has twice the resonance here. It’s not just the usual “Should we have done that considering we barely know each other – and now what?” It’s also their wondering if they can trust each other even after they’ve literally and figuratively exposed themselves.
(If indeed they have.)
Olivia Wilde is heartbreaking when her Julia wishes for “a feeling that’s just yours, one that has nothing to do with them — something of your own.” She’s as unglamorous as Ninotchka in the first scene of her film and so beaten down that her face rather resembles Morticia Addams’. Then, when she dresses up for a special occasion, there’s such awkwardness in Wilde’s face and body. We see that such dandifying occurs seldom-if-ever.
In a play where there are precious few laughs, at least we get one in “They want to abolish the orgasm.” In second place on the humor scale is Winston’s line to Julia: “You’re only a rebel from the waist down.”
Most of the time, though, Sturridge and Wilde are asked to act scared. Even two and two equaling four is not a given – not if the government wants you to think otherwise.
That brings us to O’Brien, who certainly makes good of the dramatic term “antagonist.” Don’t look for a good-cop-bad-cop scenario in the room where O’Brien works; he’s ALL bad and so is everyone who’s there watching.
Reed Birney is virtually unrecognizable in the role, perhaps because we’ve become accustomed to his playing nice guys. Here he does start off sounding avuncular (or Big Brothery?) when he invitingly tells Winston to “Take a seat.”
That chair that may not be as ominous-looking as Sweeney Todd’s but will be nearly as dangerous.
“I’m going to make you perfect,” O’Brien says. Alas, that’s in the eye of the beholder, and Smith will now be utterly beholden to him. “The price of sanity is submission,” O’Brien suavely says, insisting to Winston “You do not exist” in the way that many Americans suspect their politicians feel about the masses.
The gasp of horror that the audience gave when Winston’s Ultimate Horror was revealed showed that, despite a renaissance for the novel both in the actual 1984 and now, many still don’t know Orwell’s book.
But here’s where I thought there would be a greater horror. For by this point, the office set has been stripped away and in its place are three tall blank white walls – left, center and right — going from stage to flies.
Ah, I thought, we’re now going to see a harrowing film on all three “screens,” illustrating what Winston is seeing and feeling. Now we’re going to be overwhelmed, flinching, squirming and hiding our eyes.
No. The walls simply stay white all through the scene.
Yes, 1984 could be much more scary.