If you’re going to see Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s Broadway adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, you might want to have a light dinner. Critics have said the play “verge[s] on torture porn” and is a “grim, sphincter-clinching sit,” with audience members reportedly fainting, vomiting due to overstimulation and even engaging in fistfights.
Those familiar with the novel from their high school required reading remember that it acts as somewhat of a warning against an all-powerful government, known in the book as “Big Brother.” Set in a dystopian future in which our protagonist Winston Smith (played with conviction by Tony Award nominee Tom Sturridge) rewrites history as his job. He eventually begins rebelling against the fascist society and engages in a forbidden love affair with fellow rebel Julia (played by Olivia Wilde, in her Broadway debut).
The story culminates in a violent display of power from the government; even its description in the novel is enough to make you squirm in your chair. The realism of Icke and Macmillan’s recreation of the brutality Winston undergoes, combined with the “strobe lights” and “jackhammer sounds,” has proven too much for some audience members to bear.
Although the play is age-restricted, warning ticket buyers that the production contains “flashing lights, strobe effects, loud noises, gunshots, smoking and graphic depictions of violence and torture” and that no one under 13 will be admitted, it appears that adults are equally affected by the torture Sturridge endures so believably. He even broke his nose during rehearsal; Wilde, a good sport, broke her tailbone and split her lip.
Macmillan told THR that their intention is not “to be willfully assaultive or exploitatively shock people.” The director also notes, “There’s nothing here or in the disturbing novel that isn’t happening right now, somewhere around the world.” Icke added, “If this show is the most upsetting part of anyone’s day, they’re not reading the news headlines.” It’s no secret that the installation of the Trump administration has people worried about the future of the country; THR’s review of the play accurately describes its eerie semblance to America’s current state of affairs:
Unlike the recent Shakespeare in the Park staging of Julius Caesar that caused a retreat of corporate sponsors intimidated by the outcry from Fox News and its ilk, there are no textual tweaks or visual clues here to connect the play to the present-day political climate. Nor are they needed. There are obvious reasons why the 68-year-old novel went racing back up the best-seller charts soon after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Though chillingly unnerving, Broadway’s 1984 might just be what we need to jolt ourselves awake and keep reminding ourselves that the way in which the current United States government is operating is not normal. “Alternative facts” and “fake news” are not far removed from Orwell’s description of the rewriting and censoring of history. Just remember to bring your barf bag.