Home > adaptation, dystopian, Genre, Review, scifi > Adaptation Review: 1984 at the American Repertory Theater

Adaptation Review: 1984 at the American Repertory Theater

FullSizeRenderIt’s impossible to talk about a theatrical adaptation of a book without discussing spoilers, so if you haven’t ever read 1984, you might want to go pick up a copy and read it and come back to this review later.

(And by might want to I mean my god, reader, how have you not? Get thee to it!)

The American Repertory Theater (ART) is a really cool theater in Cambridge, MA (right in Harvard Square) that brings a lot of brand-new and often experimental theater to the area. Previously I’ve seen The Heart of Robin Hood (before it was a Broadway play, so when it was still in its developmental phase) and another adaptation of a book–Wild Swans (review). I keep an eye out for plays coming to the ART that might appeal to my husband and I. When I got the email about the new adaptation of 1984, I forwarded it to him, and he immediately confirmed yes, let’s get tickets.

We’ve both read 1984 but not in around 10 years. My husband immediately noted the precisely 101 minute running time. I had forgotten the torture room is room 101 in 1984. I’m glad he noticed this. There were other send-ups to it throughout the play.

When you arrive for 1984, the ushers notify you that there are strobes, gunshot noises, and also no intermission or readmittance. We were expecting the first two but were a bit thrown by the last. Since we both just had a nasty bout of food poisoning, we were a bit anxious about no intermission or readmittance. We joined literal throngs of people at the bathrooms, who were all also anxious about the whole thing and then found our seats.

I would be amiss not to mention that about 2 weeks before the show, the ART called us and told us that during pre-production they discovered that one of the (cheap in the back) seats we’d originally bought was going to be obstructed by some tech needed for the show. They gave us new better seats, in the center and only a few rows back. A great upgrade, for free. In any case, let’s get down to the actual show.

1984 is a production that truly embraces the futuristic, tech-heavy dystopia depicted in 1984 the book. It incorporates technology from the instant it starts, and from the moment patrons walk into the building, there is a sense of ominous foreboding. The entire 101 minutes is done on one stage with a single incorporated set change (which was amazing, and I will get to in a minute) and with 9 actors.

The set originally consists of a room with a table and some chairs. There is paneling at the back of the room. Half of this is see-through glass, so you can see characters coming to the door in the middle. On one side of the room is the ominous telescreen, which you can actually see glowing periodically. There is another door near the telescreen. Over all of this is a giant screen that is used to incorporate really cool tech. At first I thought it was pre-recorded film being shown on this screen, but later it becomes evident that at least some of it is being shot live via CCTV on various areas of the stage. As an example of how this screen is incorporated, at the beginning of the show, when Winston starts writing in his journal, the screen shows the words being written upon the page.

This single set is used to show Winston (the main character) at home, at work, and later in the countryside. I particularly enjoyed how the show just goes for it with the countryside. They declare they are in the country, there are sound-effects of birds, and then it’s really easy to believe they are in the country. My husband enjoyed the glowing yellow lights and sound-effects of a train chugging the show uses to transition here.

Those who have read the book will realize that the earlier scenes of Winston at home, work, and in the countryside end up being recollections and thoughts while he is in prison with the Ministry of Love being tortured periodically in room 101. We weren’t sure how they were going to handle this transition without an intermission, but it was awesome.

Throughout the beginning of the play, Winston and Julia go through a door on the side of the stage to the room of safety that they rent out that supposedly has no telescreens in it. When they are in the room, the audience views what is occurring via the screen on top of the stage through what appears to be CCTV. When it is revealed that they are caught (which is super spooky how it is done in the play), pieces of the set either lift up or slide to the side (I can’t remember which) to reveal behind the wall at the back is the actual bedroom set. So this is where they have been going to actually act out the bedroom scenes. The secret police who come in to arrest them also change the set. It is violent, brutal, and awesome. They ultimately change the set to be what appears to be an empty stage but then when Winston is brought into room 101, bright lights reveal white everywhere. It’s a glowing white room, which is perfect for the eeriness of the torture.

What about the acting? The acting was so good throughout the various set changes and tech that I didn’t really notice it, which I personally think is one of the best complements you can pay an actor. If you get so sucked into the world that you forget acting is even going on, then it’s good acting. I will add that multiple characters play various roles, and I didn’t notice, which is also a complement.

So let’s get to the most…memorable/impactful part of the show. The torture scene towards the end. I thought this was splendidly done. I am not one who ever really forgets that I’m watching a play, so I didn’t have the visceral horror I would have if I was seeing pictures or videos from actual real live torture, but the combination of the set and the costumes of the torture assistants (they’re wrapped in white suits that remind me of the yellow suits in Breaking Bad, if you’ve seen that), and the interrogator’s entire presence generated a real feeling of dread and horror.

If you are concerned about the “torture,” basically the interrogator gives an order (ie “fingers”), the people in white grab their instruments and come up to Winston. There’s a big sonic boom while the lights flash out, then the lights turn on and the results of torture appear, in the case of fingers, it’s blood on Winston’s fingertips. It was good, but it was obviously theater.

That said (bare in mind there was no readmittance) right around the first torture (there are three), people in the audience started bailing out. I heard later that around 20 people bailed out. I personally saw about 7. But, I will say, this was about 10 minutes from the end of the play, so it’s also possible at least some of them just really needed to use the restroom (this is a play without intermission right after most of us went to dinner). I heard later that one woman in the audience actually threw up in her purse, but to be fair, she could have been sensitive to strobes, and there are a lot of strobes in the show. My husband and I were generally flummoxed by the number of people bailing. Did they somehow know nothing about the plot of 1984 before they went? Were they that easily disturbed? It’s torture, but again, it’s theatrical torture. I know there’s nothing the ART can do about people walking out, but it did irritate me some just because it was distracting.  However, it is also a hilarious story to tell people, and most people I’ve mentioned it to just think it makes the play sound more bad-ass (which it totally is).

We really only had a few points of feedback after the show. First, we wished that the scene when Julia and Winston are in the countryside and start to undress to have sex for fun and fight Big Brother that way had taken the undressing further. Given the violence, big booms, and large tech in the show, as well as the general point in the scene about Big Brother being afraid of orgasms, we felt that leaving shirts on just didn’t take things far enough. Additionally, we were both a bit disappointed that there were no actual rats in the show. We get how difficult it can be to wrangle animals, but I did think there’d be at least some video or disturbing images of rats, and there is not. To be fair, our ability to be freaked out by rats is really mitigated by living in Boston. I see at least one rat a week when I’m commuting. And they’re big ones. Finally, we thought that the clock in the room reading 1:01 was a bit too cute.

Overall, this is really cool experimental theater. Attending it won’t be like any other play you’ve attended. Come prepared to be a bit anxious for 101 minutes and maybe dehydrate yourself a bit ahead of time so you can last the full time without intermission. Personally, I think this is a beautiful adaptation of 1984 that really lives up to the spirit and intent of the book, while using modern tech and trends to keep it relevant.

 

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  1. Amanda McNeill
    February 27, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    I wish I could’ve seen that! I’ve read 1984 three times and is my all time favorite with Nightfall by Asimov and Silverberg. If I were a science or math teacher, I would make my students read and understand 1984.
    That said…too many persons in the US aren’t familiar with the horrors of a totalitarian society. On the news today I heard a politician wannabe (with bad hair) claim that as president, he would change the First Amendment so he could sue the media when they say bad things about him. (Rodney says this person is too thin-skinned to be running for any office.) The worst thing wasn’t that he made this outrageous and dangerous statement, but that the crowd cheered. Seems they need to read 1984. Freedom of the press prevents us from succumbing to totalitarianism. Sadly I fear too many of those running for office this year make statements that they know will appeal to the lowest common denominator. And the CD rejoices!
    Now help me off this soap box before I fall and injure myself.

    • March 2, 2016 at 11:11 am

      Always happy to have a comment from you, Amanda McNeill with two L’s. 🙂

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