Big Brother is watching you – and Broadway and Off-Broadway are watching Big Brother.
This is the summer of angry, dystopian-themed, agitprop political theater, where producers are reacting to the increasingly nauseating, still unbelievable Trump presidency with new shows and adaptations of classic works that bring to light our fears of what the imminent future might look like if the country continues down its current path. That being said, it’s unclear whether even liberal-leaning New Yorkers want to think about all that at the theater – rather than say indulge in pure escapist nostalgia and musical comedy giddiness at Hello, Dolly! or watch Ben Platt break down in Dear Evan Hansen.
Let’s quickly review. First came English director Nicholas Kent’s docudrama ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN? Scenes from the Senate Confirmation Hearings of President Trump’s Cabinet, which received a starry one-night staged reading at Town Hall, co-presented by the Public Theater and London’s National Theatre. It was followed by Building the Wall, a quickly written two-hander by Robert Schenkkan (All the Way) that imagines how a ramped-up stance against illegal immigration could lead to catastrophic consequences, which closed quickly at New World Stages. Then of course was the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, which sparked rightwing anger and a loss of corporate funding by hammily portraying Caesar as Trump. In spite of the controversy, the character choice just added Saturday Night Live-style comedy.
Now comes the streamlined, multimedia-enhanced, unapologetically intense production of George Orwell’s 1984 (adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan), which is playing a limited run on Broadway. Although written almost 70 years ago, 1984 proves to be far more meaningful and genuinely provocative than the rest.
Long before the term “alternative facts” was coined, Orwell introduced the concept of “doublethink” (being able to accept contradictory facts) in 1984. And before Trump made claims about the size of his inaugural crowd that contradicted plain photographic evidence, Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, was instructed that if the government says that two plus two equals five, it must be so.
1984 became a bestseller again after the election. Even if today’s world is not a complete manifestation of the grim one conjured by Orwell, many of the troubling themes in 1984 (fake news, denial of reality, suppression of dissent, surveillance, riled-up fear and hatred, torture, permanent global warfare) have great resonance for people across the ideological spectrum.
Set in a futuristic society run by a fascist, omnipresent government (represented by the imposing figure Big Brother), bottom-rung worker Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge, pensive and tormented) goes from expressing his reservations in a secret diary to sleeping with the fearless Julia (Olivia Wilde, making an assured Broadway debut) and confiding in O’Brien (Reed Birney, businesslike), a superior who may be a resistance leader – or not.
Running approximately 101 minutes (in a nod to “room 101,” the novel’s chamber of horrors), Orwell’s original narrative is followed, but it has a nonlinear and unpredictable flow, with a library-like set that is used to suggest multiple settings, live video projections, abrupt lighting changes and a mysterious group of people from a distant point in time who discuss Winston’s writing and his world. In response to the show’s graphic nature (a handful of audience members have reportedly passed out or vomited and the actors have sustained various physical injuries), no one born after 2004 is permitted to attend. Sorry, kids.
Just a week after opening night of 1984 on Broadway, it was announced that another stage adaptation of a classic dystopian novel is set to come from London to New York. Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s production of Anthony Burgess’ incendiary 1962 work A Clockwork Orange will play Off-Broadway’s New World Stages in September. Just like 1984, A Clockwork Orange has scenes where its rebellious protagonist is captured and tortured. No word yet on whether stage versions of Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale and Fahrenheit 451 are also on the way.