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Culpeper Times • March 24-30, 2016
“1984” – Because confusion is clarity CURTAIN CALLS
Remember: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re NOT out to get you. In the futuristic dystopia of Oceania, there is no doubt – they are definitely out to get you. George Orwell’s cautionary tale of the future rates not only as one of the most read and important novels of the 20th century, but one of the most necessary to re-read in the 21st. The actual year – 1984 – may be thirty-two years behind us, but that’s all the more reason to keep our freedom inventories updated. It should be self-evident that one measure of a theatrical production’s success lies in its ability to not only tell its story, but to inspire the intended reaction. The first is debatable but can be generally agreed upon. The second can’t be known but in the most personal terms. I know my own personal reaction, but no one else’s. It is safe to say, however, that if someone who has paid the price of a ticket walks out while the play is in progress, that’s a statement. Some people did. The Shakespeare Theatre Co. once again hosts a traveling company. This time it’s Headlong, a group from the U.K. that claims a goal of creating “exhilarating contemporary theatre” with “a provocative mix of innovative new writing, reimagined classics and influential 20th century plays that illuminate our world.” That, too, is debatable, at least as far as their reimagining of “1984” is concerned. And slightly ironic. Winston Smith’s job in the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite history according to the Party’s dictates. He is a cog in the unsleeping Lie apparatus that allows Truth to be what Big Brother says it is, and Smith must not question or even disapprove of his function. Granted, to present a novel in the medium of theatre requires a rewrite, but Headlong added its own perspective and curlicues to Orwell’s story. They rewrote “1984.” At least the directors, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, did. Opening with a book group sometime in the future discussing “1984” (or was it Smith’s diary? I couldn’t be sure) the first scene included odd choreographed movements with no relationship to the dialogue and repeated remarks to Smith who may or may not be actually present. This weirdness for weirdness’s sake had the unfortunate effect of a college theatre troupe staging “cool ideas.” What it did not communicate to me was the overwhelming sense of paranoia and entrapment that seeps
1984 plays at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through April 10. from every page of the book. Though the story arc is reasonably faithful right down to exact lines, missed opportunities abound, many of which center on the staging and effects. One well- lit unit set served for office, antique shop, and outdoor hideaway. We are supposed to know that Big Brother is always watching, but the screens above the stage show only Smith’s diary entries and the attic love nest where Winston (Matthew Spencer) and Julia (Hara Yannas) meet, thinking they are hidden. The set transforms into the dreaded Room 101, a place of torture, where there is no darkness, where the worst thing you can imagine actually happens. Headlong spared nothing in creating the most graphic, violent and bloody scenarios accompanied by frequent blinding lights and deafening crashes of sound. These were no doubt intended to force the audience into an uncomfortable engagement with electrocution, fear, and excruciating pain. But physical pain isn’t the tone of Orwell’s vision so much as an unbearable loss of objective truth and personal identity to the ubiquitous government machine that sees all. This is not to diss the cast, which is capable and doing what they were directed to do. Tim Dutton is imminently suitable as O’Brien, the one man whom Smith was sure led the underground resistance, but is, naturally, a Big Brother insider. His execution of the torture scene makes it all the more grueling to witness. Stephen Fewell, too, as the antique shop owner, Charrington, delivers the authentic shock of revealed
deception, even when we know it’s coming. Christopher Nolan is used – and misused, in my opinion – not only as Martin but as a range of robotic, purposeless humans. Yes, in “1984” people have no purpose beyond mindless service to Big Brother, where War is Peace, and Freedom is Slavery, but even that function should be clear. Regardless of my personal quibbles, “1984” is a profoundly important work to be visited and re-visited, read and re-read. Do cameras watch us everywhere we go? Are we so focused on little screens that we ignore what’s going on around us? Do we believe what those little screens tell us, and mindlessly pass the information along? Does the government keep
records on our every personal move? Can screens watch us as we watch them? Oh no – of course not. A free people would never tolerate that! Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics’ Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
Want to go?
What: “1984” Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co. Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW, Washington, D.C. Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit ShakespeareTheare.org Playing through April 10