Maybe you heard: They turned that Amazon bestseller into a Broadway show. “Is it a musical?” my friend deadpans during our pre-curtain dinner. Sorry, no “Doubleplusgood” patter song or tender love ballad called “Julia in the Red Dress.” While Scott Rudin expedited a New York transfer in the aftershock of the election, this unnerving, elliptical retelling of George Orwell’s dystopian classic premiered in Britain when Obama was still in office and Brexit was used to treat skin rash. Seeing it now, one can only murmur, “Covfefe Is Strength; Ignorance Is Yuge,” and sob inwardly. Still, 1984 does have something in common with a lot of musicals: It ends happily.
To be clear, most readers do not find the brainwashing of Winston Smith a jolly denouement — but there’s more to the novel than its pitch-black finish. In the often-ignored appendix, “The Principles of Newspeak,” Orwell explains the language policies that Ingsoc (English Socialism) instituted to control minds and suppress dissent. Newspeak telescoped words, flattened grammar, and eliminated any term that fostered ambiguity or independent thought. Now the happy part: The appendix was written during an unspecified time long after the year of 1984, with the Party destroyed and “Oldspeak” the norm. Like its cousin in future-cautionary fiction A Clockwork Orange, Orwell’s novel offers a glimmer of faith in human progress. (Anthony Burgess allowed hoodlum Alex a twenty-first chapter, long unpublished in the U.S., in which to grow up and forsake violence.)
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, co-writers and -directors of this skin-crawling, superbly designed adaptation, take the appendix as their jumping-off point. Smith (Tom Sturridge) is initially seen not in a shabby flat under surveillance by telescreen; he sits in a nondescript conference room writing in his diary. (There is a small monitor bolted to the wall, not facing us.) Smith enters that day’s date (June 21 when I attended), but blood dripping from his nose blurs the ink (images video-projected onto the set). In one neat symbol, violence and fact intermingle to sinister effect. Unlike the naturalistic movie that starred John Hurt and Richard Burton, the visual palette of this hundred-minute distillation (developed by Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse) is a bookish but canny synthesis of horror movies and European Regietheatrics, with a dash of Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective). The action is framed as a kind of book club in the future (or our present?) that puzzles over the veracity of Winston’s diary.
Icke and Macmillan thread 1984’s narrative through a unit set that serves as Smith’s office, his trysting hideaway with the sexcrime rebel Julia (Olivia Wilde, chillingly good), and the swanky pad of party boss O’Brien (Reed Birney, in blandly menacing mode). Video and disruptive light and sound transitions keep us as disoriented and doubtful of reality as Smith. Then, in an absolutely brutal final thirty minutes, sets, lights, and sound (by Chloe Lamford, Natasha Chivers, and Tom Gibbons, respectively) explode, assault our eyes and ears, and hustle us into Room 101. The preceding dreaminess and indeterminacy is replaced by gruesomely realistic violence and O’Brien’s (somewhat windy) diatribes on history, memory, and reality. Did I say that 1984 has a happy ending? The action concludes with the chilling metafictional query: “How do we know the Party fell?” That’s what the book says — unless someone got to Orwell with a face-cage full of rats.
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