New York

Review: Big Brother Has an Eye on Tom Sturridge, Olivia Wilde in Unsettling ‘1984'

I was agitated after taking in “1984,” but I’m not sure if it was for the right reasons.

A new British stage adaptation of George Orwell’s Dystopian novel, now at the Hudson Theatre, is an assault on the senses, pointedly designed to run over an audience like a tank crushing resistors in its path.

Here’s what has me fidgety, though. To some degree, the strobe lights, gunshots and gore become such a distraction from the story that they threaten to overwhelm its dire message about government run amok. Where do you dial down the noise and turn up the narrative? The answer will differ for everyone, but if you go, here’s some advice -- bring earplugs.

British actor Tom Sturridge (“Orphans”) and Olivia Wilde (TV’s “House”) are Winston Smith and Julia, members of the “Outer Party.” Their jobs involve erasing all traces of any citizen not wholly on board with Big Brother, the party leader, who may not even exist. Their forbidden affair sets the play’s events in motion.

Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, the Brits who wrote and directed “1984,” keep the live action at eye level, but add a wall-to-wall set of video screens above the actors. Parts of the play unfold on those screens in video form, particularly Winston and Julia’s visits to their love nest, where they mistakenly think they have privacy.

To some degree, Sturridge and Wilde are acting out those scenes outside the audience view and into a camera, which broadcasts images onto the projection above the stage. Both actors are very good: Sturridge interprets Winston as a dazed, but determined member of the resistance. Wilde is aggressive, with blurrier motives.

Overseeing matters is Reed Birney (“The Humans”) as sadistic O’Brien, a member of the ruling Inner Party who poses as part of the resistance to ensnare the young lovers. The final 20 minutes of “1984” have O’Brien torturing Winston in fabled Room 101, the basement torture chamber in the “Ministry of Love,” where non-believers confront their worst fears.

There’s imagery in this scene -- a downright merry band of brutal soldiers who look like extras from a Devo video, dutifully following O’Brien’s orders -- that is hard to watch. Teeth are pulled. Fingers are sliced open. Again, I wonder if Macmillan, Icke and their producers, in their effort to provide an evening’s entertainment, haven’t bitten off some of poor Winston’s nose to … spite their own faces.

Late Wednesday, producers implemented a curiously worded age restriction policy: “No theatergoers born after 2004 will be admitted to ‘1984,’” said the news release. Did I say bring earplugs? Consider an eye mask, too.

Macmillan and Icke frame “1984” with a clever device, a pair of scenes set decades after 1984, in which civilized adults discuss Winston’s diary as a historical artifact in a book club setting. The format works to their advantage, especially at the play’s conclusion, which leaves intentionally vague the authors’ vision for how the rule of Big Brother eventually played out.

I don’t routinely suggest it’s essential for theatergoers to know source material before seeing its adaptations. Here, though, it’s a good idea, so that references to ideas such as the “Two Minutes Hate” and “Newspeak” have resonance.

Previously, “1984” had West End runs and stops in major U.S. cities. Macmillan has said the New York stint became essential after the presidential election. That was a shrewd business move. The only question I’m grappling with is whether “1984” squanders a chance to reflect 2017 by becoming lost in its overflowing theatrical bag of tricks.

“1984,” through Oct. 8 at the Hudson Theatre, 139-141 W. 44th St. Tickets: $35-$324. Call 855-801-5876

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

Contact Us