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Among the myriad virtues of George Orwell’s final novel, the 1949 groundbreaking, language-redefining 1984, is its continued relevance to changing times, as every generation finds its prescience remarkable. “It’s a vision of the future no matter when it’s being read,” Martin (Carl Hendrick Louis), an antiques dealer, tells protagonist Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge) in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s confounding stage version, running at the Hudson Theatre through October 8. Martin was talking about both Winston’s secret diary and the masterful source material, Orwell’s clear-eyed view of a bleak future ruled by unseen totalitarian entities who keep the populace under constant suppression and surveillance. Later in the scene, Martin explains to Winston, “Every age sees itself reflected.” Neither of these lines is in the original text, but they get to the heart of this inconsistent theatrical adaptation. Orwell warned us that all this was coming, and now we’re virtually there, pun intended. It’s no coincidence that the book keeps appearing on the bestseller list as President Donald Trump and his associates speak out about “alternative facts” and “fake news” and cabinet members are confirmed to head departments responsible for policy they seem to be against. Icke and Macmillan have interlaced a confusing framing story that takes place well past 2050, inspired by the book’s appendix, looking back at how Winston attempted to navigate a world drowning in Newspeak, where Big Brother proclaims, “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery,” and “Ignorance Is Strength” and such words as “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “telescreen,” and “unperson” have entered the lexicon. Romantic love is illegal, but Winston and Julia, who both work at the Ministry of Truth, where Winston erases people and events from history, decide to take a risk, finding themselves in each other’s arms while also plotting to bring down the party. But it’s not going to be easy, as they soon discover.
The 101-minute intermissionless play features some very strong moments, particularly whenever party leader and possible Brotherhood agent O’Brien (Reed Birney) is onstage. The scenes change with a shocking blast of noise and blinding white lights, courtesy of sound designer Tom Gibbons and lighting designer Natasha Chivers, which is frighteningly effective. Later, the torture scenes are so graphic that the theater bars anyone under fourteen. (Originally there was no age limit, but too many families were exiting early with their scared youngsters in tow.) Playing off the concept of the telescreen watching people’s every movement, Icke (Oresteia, Mr. Burns, a post-electric playEvery Brilliant Thing, City of Glass) rely too much on live projections by video designer Tim Reid; at one point the audience is watching the screens at the top of Chloe Lamford’s set for an extended period of time as no live action takes place onstage but instead is being streamed from offstage. In addition, the fourth wall is broken twice, but it’s more of an off-putting device than it is an effective warning that this could happen to us if we’re not careful. “Words matter. Facts matter. The truth matters,” Winston says as the play references Trump and his fight with the media. There’s not much passion between Wilde, in her Broadway debut, and Tony nominee Sturridge (Orphans, Punk Rock), while Tony winner Birney (The Humans, Circle Mirror Transformation) brings just the right calm demeanor to O’Brien. The cast also features Michael Potts as Charrington, Nick Mills as Syme, Wayne Duvall as Parsons, and Cara Seymour as Mrs. Parsons, and the disappearance/erasure of one of the secondary characters is handled quite cleverly. But the narrative jumps around too much between the past, the present, and the future and strays too often from the central plot, creating confusion and annoyance. The story’s overall message — which Orwell arrived at in part as a response to the rise of Stalinism while also predicting the German Stasi — gets buried in too much stylistic stagecraft. However, its relevance is still terrifyingly apparent: Big Brother is indeed watching us, and we don’t seem to mind anymore what they see.