In the ongoing culture war between artists and our ex-reality-TV-star president, it’s surprising that theater, that famously fragile and fusty art form, has been the tip of the spear.
Less than two weeks after Donald Trump was elected, a cast member of the musical Hamilton delivered a message of concern from the stage to Mike Pence. Never one to ignore a slight, Trump tweeted that the theater must be “a safe and special place.”
A half-year later, the Public Theater, which originally produced that blockbuster, mounted a production of Julius Caesar in Central Park that imagined the doomed title character as an impulsive leader with flamboyant yellow hair and a Slavic wife. Several corporate sponsors, including Delta Air Lines Inc. and Bank of America Corp., dropped out, and protesters interrupted the show on multiple nights.
Yet the most forceful theatrical response to the administration is now on Broadway, with a nerve-jangling adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, which just opened at the Hudson Theatre. This harrowing production stages what might be the most famous picture of a totalitarian future, one that’s penetrated the lexicon (“Big Brother,” “double-think”) and subconscious of generations of readers because of its vision of perpetual war, constant surveillance, and state-sponsored lies.
The show opened in London several years ago in the wake of the National Security Agency leaks from Edward Snowden. It transferred to Broadway with a new cast only after Kellyanne Conway described some demonstrable falsehoods told by Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, as “alternative facts.” Her comment catapulted Orwell’s book to the top of Amazon.com Inc.’s best-seller list. (When it reached No. 1, the publisher, Penguin Random House LLC, ordered 75,000 additional copies printed.)
The play is an assault of flashing lights, rumbling noise, and skillfully staged violence that makes the elaborate series of stabbings in Julius Caesar look like mild atmospherics. Using a horror movie vocabulary—there’s even a creepy little girl singing nursery rhymes—the virtuosic production makes the dark implications of out-of-control state power feel urgent and real. Its running time is 101 minutes—a nod to Room 101, a part of Orwell’s perversely named Ministry of Love, where prisoners confront their worst fears. The viscerally gruesome scene inside this torture chamber operates like a rejoinder to Trump’s tweet: This theater isn’t offering anyone a safe space.
The Trump administration has been dynamite for dystopia. A stylish adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, that bracing fable that imagines a theocracy where women are forced to live as concubines, was Hulu LLC’s most-watched premiere in its history. A second season is on order. (The book’s sales have also soared; Penguin has ordered 150,000 new copies printed.) Because 1984 also focuses on a protagonist, Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), constrained by a repressive government, it faces a similar challenge: how to dramatize the inner life of a character not allowed to voice his anger in public.
The Handmaid’s Tale finds fertile meaning in whispers and glances and makes its hero more active than the novel does. Using a different tactic, 1984 blurs the line between real and fantasy, giving us peeks into Winston’s dream life, including imagined scenes shown on a large onstage video screen. Anchoring the play is the romance between Winston and Julia, a rambunctiously vivid Olivia Wilde, two conspirators against the totalitarian party. The play communicates clearly that the inability to settle on mutually agreed-upon facts—a baseline of reality—helps the powerful and hurts anyone trying to fight against them.
While this production of 1984 was inspired by fears of Trump, it has more to say about dissent than leadership. The most striking contemporary echoes are the debates between Winston and Julia over the best way to fight back against Big Brother. She responds to his fury by complaining about always having to focus on the actions of their unhinged leaders, arguing that quiet moments of personal happiness counter a repressive state. And while the last half hour of the show is an exercise in building tension, the audience chuckles when a character says the people won’t revolt because they’re too preoccupied “looking at their screens.”
The most radical departure from the novel is a framing device that takes place in the future, when Big Brother is no more. A group of friends even talk about the events of the book as if they didn’t happen. Yet the production still ends on a chilling note, one that’s both in keeping with the world Orwell creates while resolutely refusing to send the audience home with an adrenaline rush of hope. This is a play with a message for the darkest of times: No matter what you do, resistance is futile. Tickets from $35; at Hudson Theatre, 139 W. 44th St., New York