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?
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.