1984 the book was ahead of its time, with a message that still resonates today. 1984 the play lifts a lot of the ideas from the book, which still resonate, but dresses those ideas up with gimmicks and waters them down with dirge-like precision and oppressive staging. We get it, the future sucks and the future is now.
Tom Sturridge is Winston, an everyman stuck in a future where reality and truth are no longer absolutes. He struggles to make sense of the world using logic and memory, two concepts that have lost all meaning in the world he faces. Oliva Wilde is Julia, another victim of the future, defies the government by living life to the fullest. Shortly after meeting and bedding Winston, her personality dissolves into being the female Winston with the same neurosis and unhappiness.
|Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge enjoying a day at the office in 1984 (photo: Julieta Cervantes)|
1984 is played without an intermission and breaks down into four rather distinct blocks of exposition and action. In the first part, Winston tries to understand the world he is faced with. It is a world that repeats endlessly, but not consistently. Drudgery and confusion are broken up by outbursts and Big Brother sponsored HATE sessions. This part of the show works best, by layering on confusion and an oppressive dread. Sparks of human interaction come to the fore, ebbing and flowing like tides. Ultimately, Julia presses Winston to break out of this recurring echo and escape with her for a meeting out of Big Brother's sight.
In the second block, Winston and Julia's relationship is established and grows. They find a modicum of happiness in a secret apartment, played offstage to cameras and projected high on a large screen above the sets. It feels partially live and partially pre-filmed but well edited. It is well done, but if I wanted to watch a movie, I wouldn’t be shelling out money to sit in the Hudson Theater.
The third block is a rather short set of transitional scenes where Winston and Julia meet with Party Official O’Brian (Reed Birney, excellent as always). Believing O’Brian is a member of the resistance, they pledge loyalty to the underground group that is fighting the government. Winston reads, to Julia, parts of the party’s manifesto from the projected off-stage area. He reads aloud the portions that relate to alternative reality and official lies that tie this show to the current political situation. The metaphors are delivered to the audience via sledge-hammer.
The fourth block is an overly long bit of torture porn, sure to thrill the sadists among us. A happy ending epilogue feels tacked on.
|Reed Birney, Olivia Wild and Tom Sturridge (photo: Julieta Cervantes)|
The problem with 1984 is that is honors the book too literally. The ideas behind the story and the lessons 1984 has to teach us are what make it relevant. It isn’t the fun house effects, the slipping, shifty narrative and certainly not the ham-handed torture scenes. 1984 spends a long time building our relationship to Winston, to then subject him to the physical tortures laid out in the book seems both cruel and too easy. We have created new cruelties that are less physical and might play better here.
The sets and lighting are clever but not illuminating. The projection system is overused. I understand that this production ran to great acclaim in London and may do the same here. But, if so, it is because we are starved in trying to make some sense out of our current political situation. 1984 is a too easy response.