Prime Stage Theatre’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1949 classic, 1984, is ambitiously loyal to its original text. It attempts to extrapolate the inner story of one man inside of a paranoia machine, and does so with many attributes reminiscent of the original if only lacking a bit of the fervor.
It is the story of Winston Smith, a forlorn citizen in a world made up of enemies; or a world where every area of the world is under surveillance. Government agents have the right to surreptitiously stalk and hunt and arrest any citizen on a whim. Neighbors are forced by fear of their own unannounced imprisonment to all work as deputy spies against one another. Everyone is scared of everyone.
1984 holds a lot of very relevant themes that should be explored more. The main focus of this story is to expand on an idea that history is merely the story of the victors, and how nefarious that idea might be in an information age. This is a story that ties the insidious pull of propaganda, the neuroses of a surveillance state, the anxiety of a police state and the challenging eventuality of what could be the inevitable progression of nationalism as a belief structure. It is a book that foretells of a civilized society becoming an entire prison-like world filled with lies and terror.
Prime Stage’s adaptation has done a fine job achieving certain aspects of the original: the storyline is barely changed, the leads fit their character types, the world is somewhat surreal, sterile, ominous and oppressive.
1984 is a horror story. It’s about a man living under the oppressive circumstance of an all-controlling fascist government, yes. But it’s also so much richer in horror than simply that. It’s horror in the details. 1984 explores how a futuristic fascism could, as it’s said in the play, “narrow the range of thought.”
It’s an entire world that is creepy, overarching, dim, and terrifying.
My favorite aspect of this show was the video design, which I suppose are attributed to Artistic Director Wayne Brinda. These contain uniform images dotting the landscape of what seemed to be droll, oppressive institutional walls, as well as creative uses of CCTV-style display. For a show that really deals in a story that accurately predicted a kind of futurism, I feel that this aspect was handled in a very strong manner. It was captured perhaps best in what was the climactic moment of the show: a truly agonizing physical assault. To hear Winston scream in unrelenting terror captured exactly what this story is: an unflinching, freakishly frightening nightmare.
Justin Fortunato’s Winston comes off as an awkward, bumbly Englishman. He’s squeamish, cautious and his anxiety shines through his stolid mannerism. I was irked by watching the actor, thinking how little I’d like to be his character. He delivered in sturdily displaying his hidden well of apprehension.
This is a surreal, horror story. I can’t say that enough. Prime Stage does eventually achieve the mood that I believe makes the book what it is: riveting, institutional terror. However, they don’t get to this point of swollen emotional piercing until the third act.
When they do get there though, what an amazing job of reflecting the horror of torture and interrogation. My god. Combining imagery of relevant torture iconography (Abu Ghraib, anyone) with the insanity of a power who doesn’t offer solutions: What do you want me to do? How can I do it, if I don’t know what it is! The last leg of the play ends on a great note. Not a high note. But a note that carries with it the right weight of troubledness. (Though the use of modern music in both the scene changes and for the last bit of the play are pretty awful and don’t fit with the loyal adaptation at all. I literally cringed at the last lights out from the tacky use of a certain song).
One place that delivers rather well is the linguistic conversation had by Michael Lane Sullivan’s Syme. I always understood this character as a weaselly intellectual sort, with a nuanced ignorance in decimating the exact thing that made him intelligent: the breadth of language. Sullivan’s ability to play this part with the candor of confidence, not too annoying and not not annoying; but just annoying enough. (I guess “double-plus un-annoying”?) It’s a well-realized character.
Another stand-out is Samantha Camp’s Parsons, who does a good job of taking a robotic, creepy churchliness to a monstrously sterile level. She reminded me of an HR lady on a strict diet of amphetamines and fake news
This production does utilize many of the original details and the script fully utilizes the prose from the original. The problem is it’s a bit boring. There’s a great attention to detail, but not the detail’s detail. This story contains the aggravating encapsulation of an intelligent man repressing by necessity all of his human instincts and surviving within survival mode amongst a seemingly mundane, or inconspicuous set of factors. It’s a boring outside world (save for the people disappearing every so often, and the routine projections of forced, constructed violence (more to come on that)). We see the inner man in an outer world in the book of 1984. In the stage play, we see this strange outer world but don’t get as much of a sense of the true arc of suspense, recoiled reaction, and ghastly, disturbed awe that creates such an emotional arc for Winston. There are great hints of it, sure. But not the impact of a world so turned on its head, it’s impossible to be sane.
I’m mostly conflicted about the direction. In some regards, I really appreciated the choreography and the staging. The “Two Minutes of Hate”, for instance, is a surreal episode where the government employees are forced to watch a speech by a terrorist (who was previously known as a revolutionary for the state, a la Trotsky or someone of his ilk), and then they are watched and rated for how fiercely they deject and boo the screen on which he talks. The book characterizes this episode so well, I personally recall the vitriol in detail. It’s such a captivating moment to be captured. To quote the novel:
People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen…
A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp….
To me, this scene has lasted within my head for the last seventeen years since I first picked up this book. The sheer animosity and vivid nature of the scene strikes me like the chaos in an auditorium during an air raid.
What this production lacked was the hysteria. We saw the characters from the show lob words of hate, stamp their feet. Even the moment when one of the workers throws a shoe at the telescreen happens. But I think this moment lacked the visceral nature of Orwell’s intention. I think the power of it comes from the madness. It wasn’t really brutal, it was just a little tense. Orwell wanted to show an emotional outlet in a deranged, mindwashed people. I think Prime Stage only gets a glimpse at the surface. I was craving a theatricality that was much more severe.
The same could be said for Winston and Julia’s relationship. Jessie Wray Goodman’s Julia looks the part of Winston’s counterpart. Orwell described her as young, pretty and sexless. Goodman does a great job of approaching the part with a pent-up air, a shrunken tenacity. She looks like someone who would obsess over a uniform, and this makes her reveal all the lovelier. When they are finally allowed a life together, her contentedness and excitability is mousy and comes in small, gleeful gestures. She plays this character well.
And yet, there was an issue with their arc too. What makes Winston and her relationship so lovely is that it comes after a long, turbid set of doubts and reveals. I know that prose is much different than a stage play, but the difference between saying “I love you” versus receiving the note and poring over its authenticity in a context where any sort of conviviality could easily be a trap set by a sociopathic compatriot….it just spells a different kind of inner turmoil, a slushy force of trusting in a distrustful environment.
I’m nitpicking. I apologize. But there’s something to the swish and sway of the neurotic Winston in Orwell’s 1984 that gets to the modern reader. It’s a reason why it’s regarded as probably the most influential modern novel. It is still cited constantly by people using its terms, its themes and the probably cheaply, overused (and ironic, therefore) “Orwellian.” It’s because this story really gets inside the head of a paranoid person in fear of surveillance.
All said, 1984 is a cool trek through a classic. It falls short in reaching some of the ecstatic buzz of both terror and overwhelming relief I believe the original achieves, though it does get the point of the original novel across sincerely. I believe this show was made with an earnest enthusiasm for the content and sums up the book nicely, including even the wracked fear and anxiety of its meat. And it’s testament to a future that, especially at this particular time, seems all the most relevant. Read it. See it. Whatever. Know it.
Ignorance isn’t Strength, comrade.
For ticketing information visit Prime Stage Theatre’s website here.