In grainy, stuttering video footage, white-hooded captives denounce once-held convictions. In a covert room, craven interrogation tactics span fingernail-prying, teeth-pulling, and psychological torment. Throughout a political state, heretics are hunted down and taken out.
Sound like yet another soul-crushing evening news cycle? Actually, these and other gruesomely close-to-home horrors are part and parcel of 1984, Village Repertory Theatre’s fall season opener at Woolfe Street Playhouse. A stage adaptation of George Orwell’s painfully prescient work published in 1949, the show centers on the author’s famously grim view of the days ahead, while also pointing out the novel’s contemporary relevance. The adaptation, by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, premiered in 2013 and is currently enjoying a run on London’s West End.
It seems, of late, that all the world’s a stage adaptation. In the past few years, dramatized versions of great works of fiction have been notably on the rise. Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s 2010 breakout work at New York’s Public Theatre, upped the ante with its eight-hour verbatim marathon of the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I saw it twice, and was twice transfixed. The company has since toured the show worldwide, along with other great book-based productions.
Elsewhere in New York at the New Theater a few seasons back, producer Cedric Yau let off a little steampunk in a vibrant twist on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, a literary work that subsequently offered Trusty Sidekick Theater Co. source material for Up & Away, a much-lauded immersive production at Lincoln Center intended for audiences in the autism spectrum. This fall, a 2009 go at Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s gets a revival at the London’s Haymarket. The writings of Scottish scribe Andrew O’Hagan (and, full disclosure, my Trinity College Dublin visiting fellow) are the stuff of the National Theatre of Scotland, with adaptions of both his novel Be Near Me and the non-fiction The Missing.
So what’s so novel about the novel with theater folk today? For one, the theatrical experience can convey abiding truths of important works to new audiences. What’s more, barring the word-for-word approach of Gatz, stage adaptations are especially crafty at casting light on the writerly craft driving these classics. It’s been a while since I cracked open a copy of 1984. However, it ominously lurched into my frontal lobe — not unlike the elusive memories of the book’s protagonist, Winston, which are methodically suppressed by the functionaries behind Big Brother.
To that end, Winston doggedly, daringly fills the pages of his diary — trying as he might to hold fast to eroding bits of knowledge and to jog those fading remembrances of things past. Similarly, the staged text freed my own long forgotten first impression of Orwell’s discomfiting future. This was no accident, since the production quickly spotlights the novel on which the play is based. As the show opens, we find members of a seemingly European book club parsing Orwell’s work. A somber, uniform-clad Winston sits near them on stage.
Gradually (though never entirely) the conceit recedes, and Winston’s dilemma eclipses the book chat. However, just as the novel’s main character begins to live and breathe (with compliments to the compelling Patrick Arnheim), his humanity is systematically stripped from him by persistent application of Newspeak, a device of the totalitarian Oceania to constrict freedom of thought. Newspeak struck a particular contemporary chord with me, underscoring how so many of us reduce ourselves to the sentiments on offer in our smartphone emoji selection.
When Winston falls for Julia (Village Rep go-to ensemble member Sierra Garland), his desire for free thought and emotion are at once intensified, and challenged. The Party does not take kindly to affairs of the heart. The trick of this play, sandwiched in the circumstances of its dismal beginning and devastating end, is to make palpable that pulsing, imperiled heart, as manifest in the love between Winston and Julia. After all, anyone who made it through high school knows that it doesn’t end well, largely due to the sinister O’Brien, portrayed with suavity and skill by Brian Turner.
When it comes to that all-important emotional buy-in with the players on stage, I didn’t wholly make it there on opening night. However, I remain hopeful that the leads will deepen that crucial connection between them as the run gets going. On that note, a shout out is in order for Dave Reinwald as Parsons for an altogether efficient, gripping glimpse of the fall-out of totalitarian mind control, proving the old adage about the size of a role.
Along with the ambition and execution of this production, director Keely Enright gets an emphatic nod for her first-class set design. As with her dance with dystopia in last season’s The Nether, I’m once again blown away by how she can transform a cabaret space into a phenomenally creepy, fresh hell. And the set is just the start of this powerful work. There were 30-plus years between Orwell’s book release and the title year of his novel. There are nearly as many now between 1984 and the present day. What bears out in these days and years and decades is one unsettling fact. We should all still be watching Big Brother.