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Published four years before Josef Stalin’s death, but only seven months before its author’s, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four imagined a future of Stalinism exported to the irradiated ruins of England: perpetual war, omnipresent surveillance, methodical reduction of language, and revisionism as policy. Its protagonist, the meek Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth, striking disavowed individuals, or “unpersons,” from news reports to erase all record of their existence. Winston has an illegal affair with Julia, a woman he initially suspects of working for the Thought Police, as he has already committed the crime of keeping a diary. His career as sexual and political revolutionary is brief.
Orwell’s harrowing cautionary tale has been adapted for radio and film more than once. Michael Radford’s chemically washed-out film, which he actually made in 1984, imprinted itself on my consciousness years before I read the book. But the British play-making collective Headlong’s bold version, which opened in the West End last year and has now alighted in the capital of the free world, is the first I’m aware of to have been made in the era when every patron carries a surveillance device into the show with them. In Orwell’s story, only elite party members may (briefly) deactivate the two-way “telescreens” peering, and beaming propaganda, into their homes; the screens are also in every public place. (I think about this every time I’m trapped in an airport lounge or a waiting room with a blaring TV that no one can turn off.) A room above an antiques shop wherein no screen has been installed becomes a secret oasis.
Creators Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillian don’t address the fact that we have all essentially opted in to electronic surveillance, a development Orwell did not foretell. They keep their focus on his prophecy of institutionalized amnesia. They’ve made this brutal and profoundly depressing story visual without draining it of complexity; building their 100-minute, no-intermission compression of it around the repetition of two key scenes.The first is a gathering of intellectuals discussing a book: “It’s a mirror; every age sees itself reflected,” one of them says, and at first I took this for a metatheatrical prologue wherein the book being surveyed was Orwell’s. In the second, one of Winston’s colleagues bitterly espouses the virtues of Newspeak—the shrunken argot of Big Brother, the electronically omniscient and possibly fictional party figurehead—while another recalls being informed on by his child, who heard him talking in his sleep.
A video screen larger and with better resolution than any Orwell would have seen firsthand is suspended over Chloe Lamford’s wood-panel and frosted-glass set, letting us see the contents of Winston’s diary and the nature of his work as a censor before moving on the Two Minutes Hate, wherein the populace are forced to vent their spleens at Thought Criminals. Winston and Julia’s love nest is seen only on video, cleverly foreshadowing their capture. Recited passages from the novel are worked in sparingly. No sooner has Winston described the difficulty of knowing what the true date is when history is being revised in real time than a bank of strobe lights framing the stage blasts our retinas, a device that recurs often enough to induce a glimmer of the fear and disorientation in which Winston lives. Or at least a headache.
Talking about the actors is complicated in a story populated by characters who can be convicted of “facecrime” for displaying emotion, and wherein individual performances are so subsumed in the grand design. It must suffice to say the actors serve the adaptation faithfully: Matthew Spencer’s Smith looks like a man whose Silly Putty features haven’t hardened yet, while Hara Yannas captures the full dimension of Julia’s enigmatic fire. As the party official O’Brien, Tim Dutton is all phlegmatic, Brylcreemed menace.
Upon Winston’s arrest, the wooden set flies apart to reveal the blank expanse of Room 101, where Big Brother re-educates troublesome subjects. Before his harrowing treatment begins, Spencer gives us the show’s second fourth-wall-shattering moment, shouting, “Please, I can see you! Get up and do something!”
I assumed the rats in the box with which Winston is threatened were conjured via recorded sound cues, but there’s an ASPCA notice included in the long warning (haze, fog, gunshots, flashing lights) posted in the lobby. It cautions us that the audience, “particularly those of a nervous disposition,” may find the show distressing. They may indeed. As the pitiless functionary O’Brien observes, “It’s not easy to become sane.” But to render Orwell’s alarm more palatable would be madness.
The regime depicted in Martin McDonagh’s 2003 chiller The Pillowman is efficient in its pursuit of justice, the kind of operation where the detective who beats your confession out of you is the same person whose job it is to put a bag over your head and a bullet through your skull.
Still, it’s not half as frightening as Big Brother, as police states go. Katurian, the suspect detectives Ariel and Tupolski have detained as the play begins, isn’t in their sights merely for having written a series of possibly seditious horror stories, but because several children have disappeared under circumstances similar to those in his grim works of fiction.
That’s the crux of McDonagh’s toughest play: Are violent fantasies a herald of violent behavior? It’s a question we tend to ask after disturbed loners shoot up a public building, and yet McDonagh poses it in a setting where the government is empowered to consign books to oblivion—the detectives threaten to destroy Katurian’s mostly unpublished ouvre if he doesn’t confess—and firearms are, presumably, less readily available than they are in the United States.
Yury Urnov’s production for Forum Theatre—strongly acted but too busily staged by half—left me with the same question Studio Theatre’s production did nine years ago: Why did McDonagh choose to set this play in a nameless totalitarian nation, albeit one whose servants are free-thinking enough that Jim Jorgensen’s Tupolski uses the word totalitarian to describe it? McDonagh balances his horror with humor, gleefully sending up the good-cop, bad-cop binary so familiar from TV procedurals. Jorgensen and Bradley Foster Smith are marvelously droll and volatile, respectively, as the cops, who haul in Katurian’s mentally challenged older brother (James Konicek, believably haunted even when complaining of an itchy rectum) seemingly to compel Katurian’s cooperation. Still, their harsh tactics don’t go that far beyond those of theoretically Miranda–bound American cops acting in excess of their mandate.
Paige Hathaway’s set puts the audience on three sides of the box-like interrogation room; plastic sheeting suggests the impermanence of the place and the likely need to contain the mess of an execution. Initially, Tupolski addresses Katurian from the audience via microphone, a dynamic that eventually reverses itself. We’re privy to several of the dark fairy tales Katurian has written. Urnov works hard to stage each one in a different way: One is rendered in shadow puppetry. Another is communicated in the prose handouts The Commandant (Emma Lou Hebert) distributes, instructing us to read the story—printed in the hand of a grade-schooler— silently. Still another is the subject of a projected slideshow. Presumably intended to stave off tedium in an evening that runs to three hours (including intermission), this catholic methodology eventually begins to subtract from the intensity of the performances.
There’s also a casting problem: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is a terrific actor who has distinguished himself in many kinds of roles, but he’s a little too likeable to be persuasive as the tortured Katurian. Maybe he and Konicek should’ve traded parts. Their scenes together are tender and compelling, though; I believed that Ebrahimzadeh would do anything to spare his man-child older sibling pain. Little brother is watching.
450 7th St. NW. Sold out. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.
8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $36–$41. (301) 588-8279. forum-theatre.org.