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How Do You Design a Dystopian Future?

Date: Jun 19, 2017

In 1984, an Orwellian universe is reimagined for the stage


George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is so iconic, it inevitably conjures vivid images -- even for those who have never read the 1949 classic. Gray coveralls, grayer faces, grim ministry buildings, lots of English weather, and Big Brother: a mustachioed man glaring from a monitor. Perhaps these visual impressions come from the film adaptation with John Hurt and Richard Burton, or Apple's famous Super Bowl commercial (both came out in 1984, naturally). Or maybe from one of the myriad parodies, graphic novels, YA series, or sci-fi flicks deeply indebted to the book.

Orwell's prescience in our historical moment is undeniable. Not only is Nineteen Eighty-Four once again on bestseller lists, but a stage version, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, opens this week at the Hudson Theatre. Originally developed and presented by the English companies Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse, and the Almeida Theatre, 1984 enjoyed multiple runs in the U.K. In the wake of last year's presidential election, producer Scott Rudin fast-tracked its transfer to Broadway, and now audiences have the chance to be freshly shocked by how relevant this material is.

That realization won't come through Trump references or traditional storytelling tropes though. Even fans of the book may be disoriented and surprised. For 1984 isn't a literal representation of the plot about Winston (Tom Sturridge), who engages in a "sexcrime" affair with Julia (Olivia Wilde), which leads to imprisonment and brainwashing. Instead, the action is glimpsed as if through a fever dream, with Winston appearing like a befuddled ghost in a far-flung future when Big Brother, Newspeak, "thoughtcrime," and all the other political and cultural expressions of Ingsoc (English Socialism) are things of the past.

Just as the narrative has been reimagined, the designers behind this stage version were determined to start from zero. "We began by talking about the kind of experience we wanted the play to be, and didn't plan to reference the film," says set designer Chloe Lamford, who purposefully avoided watching the movie. In lieu of omnipresent TV screens or squalid flats, the locale for the first 70 minutes is a bland-looking conference room. Actor Michael Potts, bearded and dressed in professorial tweeds, plays the Host, a scholar of the future leading a group to unravel what happened to Winston using Orwell's book as a guide. Where are we, exactly? "We wanted a space that felt academic or part of a ministry, any time in the 20th century," Lamford explains. "It functions as many spaces, and frames the world without settling too strongly. I like that it's slightly enigmatic but recognizable."

What prevents viewers from getting too comfortable are light and sound cues that slice through scenes. Without warning we are plunged into darkness, then fluorescent lights around the proscenium flash and we hear a dry, electric crackle. It's a sensory zap that unsettles you, makes you anxious. Lighting designer Natasha Chivers explains: "The flickers create an atmosphere of uncertainty and brutality for Winston, to enhance the torture and extend it a little to the audience."

The designers note that the subject matter forced them to think outside the theatrical box. "Using LED battens facing the audience and lining the proscenium would be more likely seen at a music gig than a straight play," Chivers, an avid concertgoer, observes. For his part, sound designer Tom Gibbons brought the big guns in terms of sonic oomph. "We have a much larger sound system than previous versions of the show in the U.K.," he says. "It's the same system as a good-sized Broadway musical, and this helps achieve the levels we need to assault the audience. I really enjoyed creating difficult moments for the audience to sit through. Especially high-frequency sounds that get right in your brain." In these disruptive moments, Gibbons and his collaborators evoke jumps in time or weird neurological hiccups. Gibbons agrees the goal is to create sympathetic resonance. "A large element of the show is feeling like you are Winston and experiencing what he is experiencing," he says. "It's not always pleasant, but hopefully a state the audience won't forget."


To the extent that there's a Big Brother screen, it exists as a set-spanning video of Winston and Julia canoodling in their secret hideaway. Broadcasting the story's most intimate and relaxed human activity is one of the production's more bitter ironies. The lovers have been under surveillance by the state, which summarily arrests Winston and transports him to a prison cell -- and eventually the hair-raising Room 101. "That's a meeting point for me between the drab institutional world of the first room, and the horror and violence of Room 101," Lamford says. “I wanted to take everything apart, everything is destroyed."

In this crucial transition, the previous micro assaults of light and sound become a full-on sensory barrage. "The key for that section is transporting the audience from a feeling of contentment to a place of fear and oppression at a hundred miles per hour," Gibbons says. "Some parts are the loudest I've ever heard in a play."

Lamford introduces Room 101 with chilling simplicity: white walls unrolling from ceiling to floor, creating a blank, deathly nowhere, scrubbed of history, morality, humanity, or hope. "We knew that it had to be the 'place where there is no darkness' they refer to in the book," Lamford says. "But for me, the movement of the walls flying down is the most sinister thing: that it could arrive like it does." It's sobering symbolism. The future is something we like to think is always far away, even when it's about to glide silently down and envelop our lives.


TDF MEMBERS: TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for 1984. Go here to browse our current offers.

David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright, and opera librettist based in NYC. Follow him at @davidcote. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge, center. Photos by Julieta Cervantes.