1984, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s newest visiting international production, combines cutting-edge technology with a very old technique for making political plays for this new adaptation of a classic novel simultaneously politically vacuous and literally physically painful to watch.
Much as most every sophomore in high school gets a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 in English class to inspire them to new political understanding, seemingly every sophomore in collegiate drama school gets a copy of work by Bertolt Brecht as inspiration for the creation of new political theatrical work.
While the sum total of Brecht’s political and aesthetic philosophy is both nuanced and broad, novice theater students often glom onto a particular and, in their interpretation, narrow element of Brecht’s philosophy: the Verfremdungseffekt or alienation effect. The most simplistic definition of the idea is that an audience can be shocked into withdrawing emotional and conscious investment in a play and that ending of emotional investment will instead subconsciously inspire political and intellectual action. Or, alternately, that shocking a bourgeois audience will bring them out of their complacency to aid the worker in revolution. (Brecht was a Marxist, in case you couldn’t tell.) The shock can come in many forms: from the victory or praise of a character that the audience might find morally objectionable, from an acknowledgement of the “theatrical-ness” of the situation like showing rigging or costume changes, or from shocks to the senses like flashing lights or aggravating sound.
But why this history lesson? Because it’s important to understand that the design I’m about to describe is motivated by the historical effect and is, in fact, deliberate.
1984 mostly employs this third of these alienation effects with the full force of the technology available today. The stage is framed in giant blinding flash bulb light which goes off directly into the eyes of the entire audience. The enveloping soundscape created by the designer is specifically grating, overwhelmingly loud and grinding sound and just-out-of-hearing feedback in order to induce the most teeth-gnashingly bitter and nauseating sensations possible. To be clear, these alienation techniques are not employed sparingly and wisely at only crucial moments throughout the production. They are a constant and relentless assault on the senses that drove not a small number of audience members from this intermission-less show and caused at least one audience member to lose a contact.
It is difficult for me to overemphasize the aggravation these alienation techniques inspired. I am half convinced that this show lacks an intermission so that these poor, hard-working actors would not be humiliated by seas of empty seats that would inevitably follow such an intermission.
The script employs alienation as well, creating a framing device for the main plot novel: a book club discussing a version of 1984 in the future (actually about the same amount of time from Orwell’s original to the year 1984 as that future is from today). The protagonist of the play, Winston Smith, observes this book club, which inspires him to write the diary that is 1984.
This book club breaks down with a growing sense of dread using Japanese horror tropes (like people disappearing and reappearing in a flash and quick changing in quick moments of darkness) that should have paid off by returning later in the production. Well, they did return, but no one saw them because whenever they happened, there were cornea-searing flashbulbs going off during those times.
Even so, the horror tropes merely worked as a welcome distraction from the book club framing device, inserted to cover over the two most notoriously difficult sections of Orwell’s novel to stage: the grinding inciting incident of Winston’s day-to-day life and the unappetizing and unvictorious end.
This first problem – theatrically showing the banality of evil – and this second problem – finding a message to defeat Big Brother in a text where Big Brother wins – are the essential issues that every attempt to adapt 1984 has had to deal with.
In this adaptation, these problems are ignored by the authors, who instead insert their own philosophizing via this framing device, rather than deal with the text as it is. In an era of the crypto-fascism of the United Kingdom Independence Party, the French National Front, Greece’s Golden Dawn, America’s Donald Trump and countless other figures, leaving the audience with platitudinous questions of the adaptors’ design is not only a morally repugnant disservice to the audiences who must deal with the realities of these dangers and to the revolutionary Brecht who came up with these techniques, but also to the memory of George Orwell, who took a bullet in the throat to fight against fascism. And so these difficulties of adaptation remain unsolved.
As does the issue of creating a sense of surveillance in an emotionally effective way. To express this feeling, this production uses two devices: an offstage “private” room for lovers Winston and Julia which the audience observes via giant projection, and bringing up the house lights to implicate the audience as observers of the dictatorial social systems and torture being portrayed onstage.
The first was ineffective and the second was effective for the exact same reason. Since a great chunk of the play takes place in this “private” room, the glamour (in the magical sense) of the hidden camera dissipated quickly, leaving less of a feel of a play and more the feeling of a poorly-shot BBC TV movie. Bringing the house lights up, however, was done in a considered manner, in one (and only one) particularly crucial moment, that showed off both Orwell’s text and the actors’ prowess.
These actors do have quite a bit of prowess. They are hard-working and obviously talented in their mastery of difficult and often repetitive physical choreography and skilled in their emotional connection with each other. It is a shame and disservice to both the actors and the audience that the hard work well-executed by this cast has been washed away by misguided directing and design. Particularly, the actors showed hustle and grit in a remarkably difficult and powerful set change which was drained of all of its power by its unreadability, due to deafening grinding noises and, yet again, seizure-inducing lights blaring into the audience. Noticing a pattern?
March 11 – April 10
Shakespeare Theatre Company
at Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
Tickets: $59 – $123
Check for discounts
This pattern is familiar. The reason Brecht and his alienation effect is introduced to teenagers in college is so that they can purge the inevitable sophomoric desire it initially produces: that they can unthinkingly and immaturely harass their audience via design and direction while thinking themselves intellectual and innovative for doing so. Hell, I readily admit going through this phase in an ill-fated attempt to mix Brechtian philosophy with hip-hop by having actors spray paint graffiti indoors. Several people left because of the fumes and I ultimately had to rework the project because, to paraphrase my directing professor, “No one will see a show that attempts to poison them. And a play without an audience is just a rehearsal.”
And, as I realized later, this technique of alienating was not original to me, but had been tried by a plurality of directing students in the history of the program in one way or another, and, in fact, was played out by the time Brecht was producing in the early 20th century.
But here’s the difference: I was a know-nothing teenager who needed to learn a lesson about the respect inherent in the audience/artist relationship, not the director and writer of a grand international project charging people three digit ticket prices to suffer through my immaturity and ignorance. Immaturity is insulting someone and expecting them to thank you for it. Ignorance is insulting someone and, if they don’t thank you, assuming that they don’t “get it.” I “got” what this play was trying to do; I just don’t think it was remotely worth doing.
I consider the aim of my work as a critic to be summed up as this: I open myself to a play, become perfectly vulnerable to the intentions and desires of the artists, seek unreservedly the raw truth and power of the connection between artist and audience, give the fullest measure of my attention and hopes to every moment crafted, and offer to all the artists the deepest parts my heart as raw clay for them to mold to their aesthetic will. And in doing all of this, I hope to understand the depths of their work and pass some shadow of it on to you, the reader, in what I write.
I opened my eyes to this production, and it stabbed them with light. I opened my ears to hear, and it ground them to dust with dissonance. I opened my mind to this story, and it was smothered with platitudes. I opened my chest to reveal my heart to this production, and they spat in the cavity. I feel deeply betrayed.
I have a rule as a critic: Never take glee in a pan. I assure you that there is no glee in writing this review. There’s only disappointment and disgust. Disappointment that one of the greatest works of literature in the 20th century has been soiled by this adaptation. Disgust that, of all of the wonderful, beautiful, heart-warming, heart-breaking, politically savage, intellectually thoughtful, and truly artistic theaters in DC and the world, that this piece has soaked up so much corporate, public, and private money from those worthy theaters. I pray you don’t give them yours.
1984 based on the novel by George Orwell . Adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. Featuring Simon Coates, Tim Dutton, Stephen Fewell, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Ben Porter, Matthew Spencer, Mandi Symonds, Hara Yannas, Koral Kent, and Anais Killian . Set and Costume Design: Chloe Lamford . Lighting Design: Natasha Chivers . Sound Design: Tom Gibbons . Video Design: Tim Reid. Produced in association with Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse, and Almeida Theatre by Shakespeare Theater Company. Review by Alan Katz.
Eric Arthur Blair was an important English writer that you probably already know by the pseudonym of George Orwell. He wrote quite a few books, but many believe that his more influential ones were “Animal farm” (1944) and “1984” (1948).In those two books he conveyed, metaphorically and not always obviously, what Soviet Russia meant to him.
I would like to make some comments about the second book, “1984”. That book was written near his death, when he was suffering from tuberculosis, what might have had a lot to do with the gloominess that is one of the essential characteristics of “1984”. The story is set in London, in a nightmarish 1984 that for Orwell might well have been a possibility, writting as he was many years before that date. Or maybe, he was just trying to warn his contemporaries of the dangers of not opposing the Soviet threat, a threat that involved a new way of life that was in conflict with all that the English held dear.
Orwell tried to depict a totalitarian state, where the truth didn’t exist as such, but was merely what the “Big Brother” said it was. Freedom was only total obedience to the Party, and love an alien concept, unless it was love for the Party. The story is told from the point of view of Winston Smith, a functionary of the Ministry of Truth whose work involved the “correction” of all records each time the “Big Brother” decided that the truth had changed. The Party slogan said that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”, and they applied it constantly by “bringing up to date” the past so as to make it coincide with whatever the Party wanted.
For more comments and reviews…
Carol Schroeder says
Disappointed is not the word for me. I am angry at the WSC for selling us this play. See my comments.
Carol Schroeder says
My husband and I saw 1984 yesterday. I read the book years ago but forgot about the torture scenes. I took the strob lights and banging sounds OK but could not watch the torture. Eyelids are wonderful! I had my eyes shut for the last 20 minutes. The screams of the tortured were bad enough. I did not applaud as if anyone cared. Last night my husband had to wake me up when I was screaming in my sleep. I saw one woman leave but I was very close to the stage (more strong lights for me!) and there were probably more. I do realize that my reaction was the purpose of the play. I am not dumb. However, with 25 subscribed years at the Shakespeare theatre I felt manipulated and mad that I spent money to put myself in this situation when what I really want is a diversion from the reality seen all too easily on TV. More and more of the last few season’s plays seem to be acquired from other theatre troupes. Maybe it is time to look at the Folger, like a previous commenter said. I hope for no more screams in my sleep…the actors and the Theatre must be SO pleased.
Steve Sharro says
We attended the matinee performance yesterday without having read this or any other review. I agree with the review and give Alan Katz credit for explaining (or rationalizing) the intent of the production.
Marvin Gardens says
How does someone who graduated from college write the following run-on sentence???
“In an era of the crypto-fascism of the United Kingdom Independence Party, the French National Front, Greece’s Golden Dawn, America’s Donald Trump and countless other figures, leaving the audience with platitudinous questions of the adaptors’ design is not only a morally repugnant disservice to the audiences who must deal with the realities of these dangers and to the revolutionary Brecht who came up with these techniques, but also to the memory of George Orwell, who took a bullet in the throat to fight against fascism.”
Talk about something being “drained of all of its power by its unreadability.” I suggest the author of this article read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”
My husband and I left half-way through even without an intermission. (Fortunately, we were on an aisle so hopefully did not disturb anyone!) I am so glad to read this review now and to know that I was not the only one who was disappointed.
Kate Baker says
I totally agree with you as I did the comment above. I read this review before I went to the play and was prepared to walk out after 30 minutes, but I found the performances riveting.
Kate Baker says
I agree. I thought the play was brilliantly performed and staged!
Bill Matuszeski says
I agree with everything Alan Katz says and am relieved that I am not alone in believing the whole production was something out of a third-rate college drama department. I had the special pleasure of having had eye surgery earlier the same day, so the lights were as painful as the shrieks and the bangs. My way of dealing with the lack of an intermission was to cover my entire face with my hat for the last half of the show. I also had the advantage of turning off my hearing aids so the explosions were somewhat muffled. What is particularly galling is that last night we experienced the same sophomoric phenomenon at the Harman with Othello. First thing they do is turn a bunch of spotlights into the faces of the audience and start unleashing horrible crashing and exploding sounds. Then Iago and Othello come out and shout and scream their lines so as to be utterly incomprehensible. The advantage was there was an intermission so we could leave. And we are leaving the Shakespeare Theater after 25 years of season tickets. Long live sanity and the Folger!
Raymond purchase says
Dear Mr Katz, I am very excited about your idea for hip-hop extravaganza based on life of Bert Brecht with real graffiti . Plz let me know when it premieres i think it could be next big hit like Hamilton.
Tim Harvey says
Oh, Alan, it’s such a crying shame that this terrible, violent piece is on at a major theater instead of all the internationally-recognised, award-winning, super-successful work that you’ve made.
Deb Kaplan says
I saw this last night and have to admit – in the beginning I was wishing that I wasn’t there. I didn’t get grabbed by the show at first due to the “setting of the mood” – watching Winston react to his surroundings and becoming aware of all that he has lost. However, I soon “got it” and started to appreciate the good acting, the cleverly designed set, and the intensity of the messaging. By one half into the show I found it provocative and was enjoying everything that the actors did to tell the story. I do not agree that the sounds were annoying; I felt they added to the emotion of the play. I did enjoy the show!
Sandra Buratti says
Saw this production last night. I disagree with practically everything you have commented on as I thought it was compelling, well staged and well acted. But of course, we all have opinions. I think it is a shame you are so condemning on every aspect (except maybe the acting) and hopefully not everyone will be put off.
The audience last night was big and extremely appreciative and no-one walked out.
Timothy Hulsey says
Brecht aside, Headlong’s “1984” is one naked emperor.