A.R.T’s ‘1984’ is Disturbingly Brilliant (5 Stars)

 By Mike Hoban

‘1984’ By George Orwell; Adapted and Directed by Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan; Presented by the American Repertory Theater in association with Headlong, Almeida Theatre, & Nottingham Playhouse, at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, through March 6.

Those of us who are quick to liken the revelations of government spying coupled with corporate-driven infotainment disguised as news to the hopelessness of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” might want to go back and read the book for a little perspective. Or better yet, grab a ticket to see the A.R.T.’s utterly brilliant and deeply unsettling production of the play (adapted from the novel) now being performed on their Brattle St. stage, to see what full blown totalitarianism really looks like.

Which doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be alarms going off in the collective heads of the world’s citizenry (if we could only lift our heads up from our cellphones long enough to employ some critical thinking skills – a point that this production slyly incorporates into the altered narrative). Perpetual war, government surveillance (with a little self-inflicted participation from Facebook and other forms of social media) and a blind adherence to the party lines being spouted by both the right and (some of) the left are huge reasons for concern if a true democracy is to survive. But the scenario presented by 1984, one which is summed up by the line “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever”, isn’t necessarily an inevitability. At least not yet.

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, who adapted the play from the novel and directed, have distilled much of the original text without losing any of the book’s cautionary message, and the results are both horrifying and thought-provoking. The play begins in straightforward fashion, true to the original, with protagonist Winston Smith sitting alone at a table and beginning to write in his diary – an act punishable by death, we learn – while an unseen narrator describes the action. The stage suddenly goes dark, and when the lights come up moments later, he has been joined at the table by a half-dozen other people in the present day (apparently a book club) discussing – you guessed it – ‘1984’. It is a brilliant framing device that adds an even more surreal dimension to the already nightmarish story.

The play then switches back to post-WWII, and a powerful impressionistic Cliff Notes version of the novel ensues, alternating between the doomed love story involving Winston and his rebel girlfriend Julia and the depiction of the madness that has become accepted as truth by the rest of the populace. Icke and Macmillan use a repeated flashback sequence to the cafeteria of the Ministry of Truth to portray the contorted thought processes of the lovers’ co-workers, which includes a chilling story told by a proud father describing how his seven-year old daughter turned in a stranger to the secret police. But that vignette is trumped by the outright insanity of the “two-minute hate”, a scheduled work break where the workers scream at a video screen showing a newsflash of a traitor to the state confessing his crime. He is then executed to bloodthirsty cheers as “War is peace. Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength” flashes in the screen’s background.

The visual and aural effects in this production are stunning and impactful, from the flashing columns of light and horns in the interrogation room; the large video screen that gives us a view of the secret room where Winston and Julia are conducting their love affair (safely hidden from Big Brother’s watchful eyes); and the eerie (and sometimes deafening) soundscape that is interwoven throughout the action. Chloe Lamford’s set design is impressive, especially when it transforms from the 1940’s antique shop/cafeteria settings to the stark white Room 101 where Winston is interrogated and tortured. The scene changes are also a marvel, particularly when they flash back and forth from the present to the past, adding and subtracting players as if by magic.

But it is the performances that really make this production so powerful. The British cast is extraordinary and brilliantly directed, so much so that despite the unthinkable actions appearing onstage, it barely feels as if you are watching a play. Matthew Spencer is a fully-realized Winston, from his nerdy defiance at the government to his bewilderment when he finds himself in the future sitting among the book club members, to the horror of the interrogation and torture scenes. Tim Dutton is a truly frightening O’Brien and Hara Yannas is both sensual and supportive as Julia.

This production is powerful with a capital ‘P’, and 65 years after the book’s publication, it still serves up a very reasonable warning that still resonates. “The people are not going to revolt,” says O’Brien during the interrogation of Winston. “They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s really happening.” But as brilliant as it is, I must give a warning: This play is not for the squeamish. A half-dozen folks walked out during the performance I attended, due to the violent nature of the interrogation scenes. It’s not often that violence is portrayed this honestly in theater, but a rule of thumb might be that if you can sit through a graphic horror movie like “It Follows”, you’ll probably be okay. For more information, go to: http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/1984