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by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Feb 18, 2016
Matthew Spencer in '1984'
Matthew Spencer in '1984'  (Source:Manuel Harlan)

"Every generation sees themselves reflected in this book," marvel the members of what looks to be a reading club, a group of several men and one woman sitting at a long wooden table. That seems to be about as far as their consensus goes; after that, it's a mater of interpretation as to what the book is telling them, who wrote it, and how true it is to history.

Even the tome's precise merits are up for debate. One member of the reading club declares that this was a book that "changed the world," but another member challenges him: "How can you say it changed the world," he demands, "when the world is exactly the same?"

Welcome to the future. Welcome to "1984."

Drawing on material from the appendix to George Orwell's seminal novel -- the appendix is, in fact, part of the novel, and offers more context and dystopian future history -- this stage adaptation, which is written and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, makes the John Hurt and Richard Burton-starring film version (titled, like the novel, "Nineteen Eighty-Four," and released in the titular year) look as genteel as high tea. This play is as bleak and brutal in its style as it is polished in its presentation. "1984" premiered in the UK in 2013, the work of theater company Headlong, and after touring and playing on the West End it arrives on these shores as a fully mature work, authoritative and confident.

In the movie, thought criminal Winston Smith escapes, from time to time, to a pastoral place in his imagination; here, though, you start wondering early on whether Winston (Matthew Spencer) has been drugged, or terrified out of his mind, or tormented to the point of insanity. His illegal diary keeping is interrupted by abrupt shifts in time, place, and circumstance: Winston becomes, to his bewilderment, part of the reading group that's discussing a book. What he cannot figure out (nor can we) is whether the book in question is his own diary, a work of fiction by someone named Orwell (whose name is mentioned fleetingly), or a synthesis of historic events that have been boiled down into a semi-fictional format.

The cast of '1984.'  (Source:Ben Gibbs)

That's just the least of Winston's worries, though. As the play continues, the same scenes begin playing over and over again -- though in increasingly incomplete and bedraggled form. History is disintegrating, or else memory is, and when you get down to it the two are so deeply intertwined as to be much the same. But if history can be erased, re-written, or simply ignored, what becomes of the future? What meaning does human life retain -- for the individual, or for society?

It's a simple place, this room where Winston scribbles in his diary, hoping that "Big Brother" -- a state-run system of surveillance and propaganda -- doesn't happen to tune in on him while he's doing so (because having one's own thought and opinions, in this highly controlled culture, is punishable by death). Designer Chloe Lamford has given the set and costumes a '40s look, but a spare and elegant one; this isn't the bombed-out, rubble-strewn environment of the famous movie. Rather, it's more like something from behind the Iron Curtain -- a place that looks retro simply because it hasn't the economic strength, or the creative freedom, to move forward.

Tim Dutton in '1984.'  (Source:Manuel Harlan)

A row of windows looks from the room into a corridor, where various people pass by -- sometimes suddenly turning into others as the scenes shift. At other times, a menacing-looking man -- shadowy, watchful -- glides by. His voice comes into the room as though through a loudspeaker. This is O'Brien (Tim Dutton), a conspirator working from within The Party to bring the system down... or else a spy working to ferret out citizens who have the treasonous temerity to question the barrage of lies and inconsistencies the Party throws at them in the name of "Big Brother." Again, we have to wonder: Is this all in Winston's mind? Is O'Brien's voice booming into the room -- or into Winston's fever dream?

O'Brien doesn't stay cloaked in shadow, and the tidy, sparse room doesn't stay tidy. In fact, it doesn't even remain a room. But let me stop right there, because the way this production is staged -- so delectably, so cunningly, and so effectively -- is part of the surprise. Suffice it to say you're not always entirely sure that what you're seeing is taking place in real time, and there's an element of mixed media at work.

This adaptation is divided into three parts, more or less, and I've described only the first. If you're familiar with the book or one of the film versions (there have been two cinematic adaptations, and one made for TV) you know that Winston embarks on a love affair with a woman named Julia (Hara Yannas), a fearless firebrand whose transgressions include sex (strictly forbidden, even for procreation!) and the smuggling of high-end luxury items (real chocolate; real coffee; stuff only the elite are privileged to enjoy). The thrill of their illicit, dangerous affair -- and of their flirtation with joining up with a resistance group called The Brotherhood -- constitutes the second third.

Because love and sex are as illegal as thoughts (and even feelings), Winston and Julia imagine themselves to be revolutionaries every time they sneak off to bed together. But their defiance is sure to draw punitive action -- and when the weight of Big Brother comes down, in the play's final third, it's a bloody, psychologically shattering business that's staged to live up to the nasty notoriety of its locale, a torture chamber called Room 101.

Hara Yannas in '1984.'  (Source:Manuel Harlan)

As the play itself makes a point of noting, every group can see itself reflected here -- not as the villains, but as the hopeless rebels. It's a meme that conservatives have clung to for years, referencing Orwellian terms like "Big Brother" and "Newspeak" any time they feel like protesting what they feel to be intrusive overreach from the political left.

Still, EDGE readers in particular may find that the play has special resonance. Anyone can say they feel targeted by a monolithic and relentless oppressor, but how many groups have actually, in the course of living history, been subjected to electroshock, as Winston is at one point, with the promise that the torture will stop only once they agree with statements and beliefs -- and thoughts and feelings -- that, to them, are utterly alien and false? (Such forms of systematized torture constitute a problem so damaging and widespread that several states have outlawed so-called "reparative therapy" for use on minors.)

For that matter, how many demographics actually have, as Winston and Julia do, had sex as a means of making a political statement? How many groups have been told, as Winston is, that to insist on the plain facts of the matter -- truths they know so clearly and incontrovertibly that to have to deny them seems absurd and unnatural -- constitutes willful defiance and egotistical clinging to selfish desires?

How many groups have -- let's be honest, now -- been subjected to laws that deny them physical intimacy, meaningful commitment, and the bonds of family? How many groups have been subjected to the kind of logic by which a brain is "made perfect before we blow it up" -- or, in a more familiar configuration of the same pretzel-shaped reasoning, told that they are "loved" by the very same people who treat them with malicious hatefulness?

By the time you reach the end, "1984" has started to feel like 2018, if the GOP takes the next election.

This play is an absolute sensation, but not everything it dishes up is going to feel good or be easy to witness. Be warned that there is no intermission, and no re-entry if -- like a handful of (uniformly older, for some reason) audience members on opening night -- you decide you can't stand it and have to leave. (Of course, the repeated use of blinding lights and a shrieking, hideously unpleasant sound design could have had something to do with some people needing to depart early.)

That said, there's no better time than this very moment -- a moment at which certain lawmakers are making up rules out of thin air and baldly revising history to justify their irrational opposition to the crucial work of replacing a recently-deceased Supreme Court justice -- to see this play.

Then again, of course, every moment in human history is a good one in which to reflect, at length and with uncomfortable scrutiny, upon Orwell's masterpiece. After an hour and forty minutes of this unstinting, unflinching theater experience, you'll hardly know what hit you.

"1984" continues through March 6 at the american Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center at 64 Brattle Street in Cambridge's Harvard Square. For tickets and more information, please visit http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/1984

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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