Olivia Wilde’s Broadway debut is scoring scads of headlines, but not the kind for which most actresses hope. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s Broadway adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 is becoming notorious because audience members have reportedly been so disturbed by its torture-centered climax that they have fainted, puked, and even cried out to the cast to stop the show. What could possibly be so jarring? Well, I saw this production on Sunday, coincidentally Orwell’s 114th birthday. So allow me to step you through the stage show that’s got audiences revolting.
1984 tells the dark tale of aspiring revolutionary Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), who by day works for the suffocatingly controlling Party and its mysterious head Big Brother, and by night scribbles his thoughts into a secret diary, or sneaks off—out of sight of countless surveillance cameras—for illegal trysts with the fiery Julia (Wilde). His is a world where the government demands absolute loyalty. Where children are trained to spy on their parents. Where Shakespeare is censored, and “Newspeak” kills the nuance of language, turning everything to good and ungood. Where history is brazenly rewritten by those in power.
Considering our current political climate—where the president treats the press as enemies and redefines words on the daily, while his supporters protest Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar—the production doesn’t need to do much to make this dystopian tale feel unnervingly relevant. Speeches denouncing intellectualism, nonconformity, and “foreigners.” There are no gimmicks as overt as modeling its characters after Donald Trump or his cronies. There’s no need. The cast glares out at the audience, spitting vindictive and howling in rage during the patriotic 2-minute Hate, where pictures of rebels and video of their bloody executions are projected behind them. But the wallop comes from the violent lighting design. Scenes are cut short by blinding strobe lights on either side of the stage that flash, then thrust audience and actors into collective darkness and uncertainty. When the stage lights rise, the cast is in new places or vanished so quickly that your brain stirs with confusion, not just of what’s happening on stage, but of what you missed in between darkness and light.
This production wants you to feel the mind-fuck of Winston Smith. His life comes in loops, repeated dialogue, shaky memories, flashes forward and back, and his distrustful neighbors always ominously asking, “Where do you think you are, Winston?” To 1984’s credit, its aggressive lighting and wildly disjointed structure pitch audiences out of the comfort of a day at the theater and into the disturbing headspace of uncertainty and terror Big Brother brings on. But is there much more to this show than its torturous gimmick?
An ensemble cast swirls around Sturridge and Wilde, playing mournful mothers, chatty co-workers, party zealots, distracted shopkeepers, and quarreling academics. They spin and whirl in this cryptic clockwork with relished menace. But Sturridge at its center aims for haunted and comes off sleepy. His jaw often hung dully open, his hair tufted as if he’s been pulled out of a long nap, he gawps about the stage, from one set to another in a one-note stupor.
Opposite him, Wilde is voracious and alive, whether violently seducing Winston in a secluded wood, hissing full-bodied in the requisite Hate, or demurely cuddling in their forbidden love nest. With a commanding stage presence, she demands your focus the moment she stomps onstage, a bold red belt cinched around her waist, and a frumpy grey sweater and ill-fitting slacks desperately attempting to bury her beauty. But its when the production includes live-feed video that Wilde’s eyes come for you. In close-ups played across dingy foam tiles that hang above the stage, she brings tenderness and fear into the role of her promiscuous rebel. But for all her tenacity, the writing that frames Julia through the lens of Winston’s POV, keeps this love interest from being much more than temptation and motivation for the hero. She’s pried almost completely from the final act, where torture is performed on stage and off.
Spoilers for a book published in 1949: Winston and Julia are captured and taken to the Ministry of Love for punishment. Here’s where the show takes a turn that’s turned off some of its audience. Surrounded by blazingly white walls, reflecting viciously bright light, Winston is interrogated and gruelingly mutilated by a dapper white gentleman (Reed Birney), who speaks calmly as the prisoner’s finger tips are sliced to bloody nubs, his teeth pried from his mouth so he spews blood, his body racked with electrical charges that throw him into rigid grimaces. Now, some of these acts of violence happen once the lights have blazed, punctuated by the seat-shaking screams of roaring jackhammers, then cut to darkness. When the audience can once again see, they discover blood on Winston’s body, horror on the stage, agony on his face. End of spoilers
It’s a lot to take in. Sitting so close, dazed by the strobe lights and scathing sounds, the audience in the Hudson Theatre shifted uncomfortably. The lighting during the interrogation scene was so bright I had to scrounge for my sunglasses so I could bear to look toward the stage. As things grew more violent, three older women in front of me gasped and covered their eyes, or fully averted their gaze as the play drew to its climax. I could hear huffs of frustration, gulping and whimpering around me. It’s easy to imagine this provocative production with its blaring sound, glaring lights, and horrific onstage gore pushed its audience to pass out, puke, and even beg Winston’s interrogator to stop. This is actually the reaction to which 1984’s cast and makers aspire.
Wilde told THR, “This experience is unique, bold and immersive. It allows you to empathize in a visceral way, and that means making the audience physically and emotionally uncomfortable.” It does all that. From the comfort of a velvet-covered seat, you too can know what it’s like to be tormented by an uncaring government. Or you could read the news.
Icke has taunted, “You can stay and watch or you can leave — that’s a perfectly fine reaction to watching someone be tortured. But if this show is the most upsetting part of anyone’s day, they’re not reading the news headlines. Things are much worse than a piece of theater getting under your skin a little bit.” Birney concurred, asserting, “If people don’t pass out, I hope they’re reminded of our power as citizens, and our responsibility as human beings to each other.”
Watching the play, I was shaken. I wanted to leave. It was a beautiful sunny day outside, why was I choosing to be here subjected to torture porn cabaret? Because as 1984 stalks into its final moments, its motives are lost among its sinister spectacle. The sounds and lights of fury that constructed a disorienting environment for this dystopian tale end up smothering its relevance as its conclusion revels in shock tactics and graphic violence. Nuance is lost amid the sprays of blood and blares of destruction, making the political threat Orwell warned of feel more distanced than damning.