In the Moment: ‘1984’: A Loud Flash-Bang Grenade of a Theater Experience

Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) has a loud flash-bang grenade of a theater experience for audiences. It comes with a chilling take on gloomy lives lived in a world of law and order under total government surveillance. It is 1984.

The cast of ‘1984.’ Photo by Ben Gibb, courtesy of Headlong Theatre.
The cast of ‘1984.’ Photo by Ben Gibb, courtesy of Headlong Theatre.

It is a theatrical experience adapted from the text of George Orwell’s masterwork 1984. You remember Orwell’s fearful vision written in 1948 during the dreadful tightening of Cold War mentalities raising dreadful thoughts about nuclear annihilation. For Baby Boomers, it was first read not long after regular “tuck-and-cover” drills, wars in far-away place fought with drafted service members as well as assassinations of political figures. For Millennials, 1984 came to notice against the background of the post 9/11 world of endless wars fought with an uncertain work environment and major student loans to repay.

The STC production of 1984 is in association with Headlong, an acclaimed U.K theatre ensemble, Nottingham Playhouse, and The Almedia Theatre. The production avails itself of contemporary theatrical means such as projections and irregular halogen bright light shows to ratchet up the visual and auditory experiences to stun audiences. All the razzle-dazzle to cover the weak spots in the script perhaps as well as leave patrons in a more alert state of mind for Orwell’s tale of a paranoia; no wait, not paranoia at all, but dystopia under the reign of an unseen, but always there “Big Brother” who monitors 24/7, without rest.

This 1984 is “trying to connect the audience and the world of now with what the [1984] text is.” wrote Adaptors and Directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan in their program notes. A look at government gone amok with surveillance and doublespeak.

For STC Artistic Director, Michael Kahn, 1984 is a drama that “extends offstage into our own minds and lives.”

My DCMetroTheate Arts colleague Robert Michael Oliver’s review of the production can be found here.

Yes, 1984 does assault as it tries to make its theatrical points. I will admit that for me the production did not resonate so deeply. It left me cold with its understandably robotic movements and less-then-firm memory play aspects attaching the proceeding not only to 1984 but to the future year, 2050. Its intimate scenes lacked much semblance of human warmth between the two main characters and protagonists of rebellion, Winston (Matthew Spencer) and Julia (Hara Yannas) even as she was described as radical “from the waist down.” (That description brought some mild tithers from the audience). Tim Button as O’Brien, the third main character and physical embodiment of the State and Big Brother, was a solid presence rarely needing to raise his voice SES-level bureaucrat who “ruled” through his intellectual bearing.

This production of 1984 rumbles along, trying to enter the deep paths of the audience’s consciousness working hard to have patrons feel unsure that even 2+2 =4, that sanity is statistical, that being outside very narrow norms makes one not only insane, but easily expendable. And, that saying one is in love is meaningless as betrayal is an act of personal survival from dealing with one’s worst fears.

So, for those already in agreement with Orwell about what one-person rule and big government can bring, the production is for you. But, let me use this column, to raise that in this modern technological world, doublespeak can sometimes seem to not be just from the government. Doublespeak words that are au courant: we all know that “cloud’ does not mean our digital worlds are really in the sky, right? Or that “cookies” are not left by the Cookie Monster in our laptops and smart phones, don’t’ we? Or that “surfing” the ‘Net is not like the surf board scene in Apocalypse Now.

So we have become more and more entangled with wearable Fitbits, our home’s Nest thermostats, our location following smartphones, our efforts to monitor our children with cameras that watch their every move at home. Have we just given up our own privacy without much resistance? Over time, as the Apple v US Government case moves along to reach the US Supreme Court and influence the upcoming election our own 1984 is right here, right now. That makes the din of this STC production is a worthy sit-through.

After all, it is quite apparent that our ways of being social and being private have changed enormously since 1948 when 1984 was published. Our tangle-up sense of order and trust have set us on new paths with the rise of the digital world and the power of technology, both of the government and in the hands of today’s technology’s entrepreneurs, thinkers and the stock holders who give them permissions and directions in this increasingly unsafe world.

Will there be a vast difference in the response to 1984 by vastly different generations. Will Cold War Baby Boomers have a vastly distinctive reaction from post-9/11 Millennials as generation’s sense of order, trust, privacy and security shift to unknown destinations? Is reality just in our heads?

How can we forget that Orwell wrote his Magnus in a world long before the advent of limitless technology in the hands of governmental and non-governmental organizations. For the questions it raised but does not answer, I am thankful for STC bringing 1984 to our midst, even with its flaws. It is most definitely as relevant now as when it was written nearly 70 years ago. It is a classic even as the ground has shifted. After you see it, let us in DCMTA know what you think. We want to hear from you. And we have a comment box right below this article.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, without an intermission.

Headlong Theatres 1984 plays through April 10, 2016, at Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

Review: ‘1984’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by Robert Michael Oliver.

Note: 1984 is recommended for mature audiences: “This intense dystopian drama contains graphic depictions of violence, loud noises and flashing lights.


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