ART's "1984": Algorithms and the Blues

Matthew Spencer in "1984"
(photo: Manuel Harlan)

ART's current production, “1984”, based on the famous 1949 novel by George Orwell (the pen name for Eric Arthur Blair) of Animal Farm fame, is an amazing new adaptation created by Directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan and presented in association with Headlong, Almeida Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse. Faithful to its source, it's a taut one-acter that was a hit in London and, if there's any justice in this world, ought to repeat its success here. It's chilling, disturbing and powerful. It was made even more exciting when one actor, due to a family emergency, had to be replaced at the last minute, necessitating having another member of the ensemble, Stephen Fewell, play two roles (quite extraordinarily), making the play even edgier. This is especially wondrous in a work that is so focused on attentive detail, such as the clock ringing thirteen times and a running time of 101 minutes (the number which will later refer to a dreaded room of torture).

It is April 1984, and Comrade 6079, Winston Smith (Matthew Spencer), as the ART notes put it, “thinks a thought, starts a diary and falls in love”, but Big Brother (He Who Must Be Obeyed) is “always watching”. Smith is a low-ranked member of the ruling Party in London in Oceania, which, with telescreens everywhere, and headed by its omniscient and omnipresent Big Brother, controls everything about the people's lives including their history and language, and even, via the Thought Police, their innermost secrets. They lack freedom of thought, sex (“orgasm is a political act”), and any expression of individuality. There is even a newly minted language, Newspeak, eliminating any words applying to rebellion. The most serious crime, in fact, is thinking about rebellion. “Orthodoxy is not thinking”. Smith is obsessed with O'Brien (the aforementioned Fewell), a powerful Party leader, who Smith thinks is secretly a member of the Brotherhood working to overthrow the government. He is surrounded by human automatons like the Parsons (Simon Coates and Mandi Symonds), Martin (Christopher Patrick Nolan), Syme (Ben Porter), and a Child (Addison Oken at the performance attended, who alternates with Faye Giordano in the role). He meets Julia (Hara Yannas) and begins a covert affair with her, renting a flat next to an antique store owned by a Mr. Charrington (Fewell again). The Thought Police burst in on them, and they are taken to the Ministry of Love. Neither O'Brien nor Charrington turn out to be what they pretended to be. Threatened with his greatest fears, Smith cracks, and subsequently learns that Julia did the same. In the end, he is alone, having agreed that if the Party says “two and two equal five”, then it is so. He has learned to love Big Brother.

As Orwell put it, if one wanted a picture of the future, one need only imagine a boot stomping on a human face, forever. But then there's the novel's Appendix, “The Principles of Newspeak”, written in our own “Oldspeak”, referenced in a footnote: “Newspeak was the official language of Oceania. For an account of its structure and etymology, see Appendix”. It mentions the “Records Department in which Winston Smith worked.” So what are we to think (if we're allowed) of the novel and this play based upon it: is it in our past or in our future? As the playwrights ask in the program notes, “can you trust evidence? How do you ever know what's really true? And when and where are you, the reader"  (or theatergoer) “right now?” (In still more attention to detail, their notes are dated “September 2050”, the final date in the novel). This dystopian fascist regime resulted from complacency. As playwright James Graham (Finding Neverland) says: “Today we freely hand over data; our own sheer compliance is what's done privacy in for us. Orwell's warnings about the fragile nature of our freedom” lead to “the choice for mankind...between freedom and happiness, and for the greatest bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” We witness on stage an era of perpetual war, privacy invasions, public manipulation and a cult of personality. Hmmm. Sound uncomfortably familiar?

Thanks to the uniformly excellent performances by this cast of eight, we are transfixed and transported. Fewell is particularly outstanding in both of his roles, as are Spencer and Yannas, but there's not a moment that doesn't ring creepily true. On the creative end, rarely have those contributions been so precisely coordinated for maximum effect, from the complex Design by Chloe Lamford, to the brilliant Lighting Design by Natasha Chivers, sinister Sound Design by Tom Gibbons and essential Video Design by Tim Reid. This is an astonishing and compelling creation that (not to sound like the Thought Police) demands to be seen.

In the context of this marvelous adaptation, “words matter” and “sanity isn't statistical”. Orwell wrote that “with the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end.” Today, online algorithms ought to be enough to bring on the blues. Yet they don't. When we look at something to buy online, why are we not upset when days later, on a different website entirely, we are suddenly solicited by an ad for that same item? And if we are not upset, why not? We could all benefit from this play's timely and timeless reminder, and just how eerily relevant it remains.

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