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Aggressive '1984' at Lansburgh

1984 (photo by Ben Gibb, courtesy of Headlong)

We welcome this theater review from contributor Philip Dickerson.

The novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is famous for its fictional dystopian world. The gripping and tragic journey of Winston Smith opens the eyes of the reader to a scenario that may not be so fictional after all. Headlong Theater Company's take on the 1949 novel, now visiting the Lansburgh Theater, is not for the faint of heart. This story, its characters, and its message are not packed into the safe pages of a book, but rather they are forced into the minds of 2016.

From the beginning this is a technically heavy production. The layered sound compositions provided by Tom Gibbons fill the theater with a computerized, artificial soundscape. As Winston Smith, played by Matthew Spencer, sits quietly, a voice recording utters the first spoken word of the play, while we also see live video projected overhead. This convention is used throughout the production and aids in bringing the surveillance of "Big Brother" to life. Spencer hardly speaks for the first fifteen minutes of the production. Rather the people in Winston’s everyday life (played by Simon Coates, Stephen Fewell, Ben Potter, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Mandi Symonds, and Koral Kent) introduce the repetitious reality that is the norm. Overbearing sounds and flashing strobe lights force momentary darkness until the cycle of repetition starts again.

Winston finds his escape in Julia (played by Hara Yannas). The two unite emotionally and bring a sense of hope to the stage. The quieter moments of the play are during “private time” between Winston and Julia. The aggressive lights and sounds retreat as their relationship takes on a familiar form. What was once disconnected now appears to be a true relationship between two people seeking strength from each other. These scenes take place behind the set in what appears to be a private bedroom. It is seen via projected video against the backdrop of the set. Multiple camera angles make the scenes movie-like. The welcomed peace and quiet are suddenly shattered when the realization hits that the movie was not a movie. It was surveillance footage and we are Big Brother.

Other Reviews:

Jeffrey Gantz, At ART, ‘1984’ is retold with fresh urgency (Boston Globe, February 19, 2016)

Brigid Delaney, Orwell's nightmare vision of 1984 is always right here, right now (The Guardian, October 22, 2015)
Blinding lights and headache-inducing sound take over as the simple realistic set is literally stripped away one piece at a time by the ensemble now dressed in Hazmat suits and gas masks. What remains are the white walls of the dreaded “Room 101,” an interrogation/torture room. The most gruesome moments are hidden in darkness, the before and after are enough to make you look away. Winston, now at the end of his rope betrays himself, his morals, and even Julia. Spencer puts himself through an emotional and physical gauntlet as he displays such realistic torture and brokenness. His transformation from the first moment to the closing curtain is seamless and palpable.

While the design is aggressive and can cause unwanted physical reactions, one can understand why such a choice is needed. This play articulates the helpless lack of control and clearly those watching cannot be spared from such a reality. Like the characters in the play, you have two choices: fight and endure or give up. Hopefully many will endure, but with each performance the question remains whether or not a few seats might be empty by the time the curtain falls.

This production continues through April 10, at the Lansburgh Theater. It runs about one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.

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