When it was first announced that there would be a Broadway adaptation of George Orwell’s prescient dystopian novel 1984, I thought OMG, how frighteningly perfect is this. How wild that a 50-year-old narrative predicting political fear and complacency nearly four decades after it was published in 1949 would come to fruition in 2017, the same year social activism and government protests have called out neo-Nazism, police brutality, and fascism in the White House.
You recognize its eerie resonance as soon as the lights come down and the play opens at the Hudson Theatre in the heart of New York City’s Broadway district. We meet Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), an ordinary citizen caught in the monotony of doing exactly what he’s told and nothing more, with no right to question or counter it—even when it concerns something as undeniable as the past. He’s a product of a socialist party that has taken great strides to control the minds of citizens, by manipulating images and information they consume. In fact, it is Winston’s job to rewrite history by way of editing past news reports. Anyone who attempts to show any initiative or have an opinion that’s against the government is instantly “taken care of” by “evaporation” or electroshock “re-education.”
Sounds familiar? Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought when I watched scene after scene of this stage production, fascinated by how much it relates to society today, how it presents futuristic ideals as though they are so far deep into a present unforeseen and unconsidered—yet remarkably relevant.
I’ve seen a lot of Broadway shows, but this is the only one I can recall that has this disclaimer: Warning: This production contains flashing lights, strobe effects, loud noises, gunshots, smoking, and graphic depictions of violence and torture. Children under 13 will not be admitted. It’s a warranted cautionary message, too. The production is not for the faint of heart (it was actually reported that some audiences fainted while watching the play). Everything looks quite real and terrifying. The irony is not lost on me that we as audience members are witnessing such torture as a bucket of hungry rats being thrown on Winston’s head or seeing him engulfed with electroshock currents and yet we just watch in silence. True, it’s a “fictional” narrative, but in today’s world many of the play’s themes hit close to home.
There is a visceral moment in the play that incites the entire audience to react at the same time. While this 1984 interpretation, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, has nary a technological gadget in it, it has much to say about the deficit of human connection as a result of digital culture. In reality, we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even talk to each other anymore, which is precisely what this particular scene takes a jab at. We’re so consumed with our devices that we lack compassion for others—partly because we have no desire for it, partly because we no longer understand what that means. We also have taken to judging people we don’t even know from the safety of our own computers. We have become what everyone feared back in the day.
CRIMES OF THE HEART
In 1984 Winston falls for a woman named Julia (Olivia Wilde) on his own volition. He senses she too might be counter establishment, and begins an affair with her. It’s precisely what his soul is craving after being indoctrinated with the status quo for so long. Something considered as salacious as free love sadly corresponds with how too many in our society view relationships that don’t follow the heteronormative. They’re persecuted and punished, they’re cast aside. While this was something that was a particular pandemic a generation ago, we are still navigating those sociopolitical micro aggressions today.
Over the last several years, there have been countless protests in the U.S., everyday citizens demanding basic rights; gender equality, reproductive choice, and racial justice. And at almost every single one it was the protester who was persecuted, the one who stood up against injustice and attempted to interrogate and abolish the status quo for the sake of humanity. Winston is persecuted for this very thing in the play. His illicit relationship with Julia, relentless curiosity for the “real truth,” journal criticizing Big Brother (the leader of the Party), and his overall defiance of the government makes him a constant target indicative of the kind of political prisoners we’ve seen throughout the Black Power movement and even with today’s modern revolutionaries. It is only through massive amounts of pain that Winston finally concedes to the government’s plans.
It was reported that Donald Trump had intentionally invited only specific media to his press conferences, which resulted in tailored news reports that so obviously swayed to only what he wanted the public to know. Winston is responsible for manipulating past new reports resulting in people not even having the context to understand the present. We live in a society today that is constantly trying to reinvent the present with a “clean slate,” to ignore the pains of the past through imagery and distorted narratives presented so provocatively that it almost makes you believe it. We’ve seen it recently in a host of historical fiction narratives and Trump’s “fake news” accusations, making it hard for us to trust anything we hear.
They say dystopia presents a wry view of society when it fact, like most subgenres of sci-fi, it sees the world in a way that others have yet to grasp. It’s not futuristic, but shockingly contemporary. Even The Hunger Games and Divergent films, and series like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Twilight Zone, and Black Mirror have dramatized a world that hasn’t come into full view yet. This new iteration of 1984 is no exception. Through its brutal depiction and compelling performances, it demands that we see things as they are and less how they should be.