In its storied history, George Orwell’s novel “1984” coined phrases now widely used and immediately understood: “Big Brother, thought police, double-speak.” He turned the proverb “ignorance is bliss” on its political head, and the adjective “Orwellian” has come to mean twisting the truth until what’s being said means the very opposite.
This classic novel of a future totalitarian state, controlling not just people’s lives but their thoughts and individuality, was published in the Cold War world of 1949.
But with its themes of state-sponsored surveillance, physical torture and psychological manipulation, it’s equally relevant today, as demonstrated by the highly-lauded, multimedia adaptation by the U.K.’s Headlong Theatre now at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Following sold-out runs in London and a tour of the U.K., this production marks the launch of the company’s American tour of “1984.”
A brief summary of the novel: Following a global atomic war, the world is divided into three Superstates engaged in perpetual war. Today’s enemies are tomorrow’s allies. Winston Smith works in The Ministry of Truth, revising history to make the past mesh with the State’s current political realities, which can change in an instant. But Winston is secretly rebellious, and through the revolutionary act of falling in love and keeping a diary of his private thoughts, he makes an attempt to bring down the system. No surprise: he fails.
I spoke to the Broad’s new Artistic Director Wiley Hausam about the play. Although it was on the schedule before he stepped full time into his new role in November 2015 he says, “It’s exactly the kind of theatre I love. It’s about what’s really happening in the world, and what really matters to how we live and what we’ll face in the future.”
With the advent of WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden’s revelation of top-secret documents and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the book was nearly prescient. “Orwell seems like he’s predicting in 1950 a world that will happen in the near future, just as it does now,” said Hausam. “Although the specifics are not the same, 1984 doesn’t age, it’s not a period piece. It’s a profound and frightening book and this play is not for everybody. It’s for people who want to talk and think about these issues and who are not afraid to feel difficult feelings.”
The play is framed using the novel’s appendix, which describes the development of “Newspeak,” the mechanism of thought control by censoring language, which Orwell posits will be adopted as the official language of the superstate Oceania in 2050.
Here adapters Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have set the actors, appearing outside their characters, in a room—possibly an office or a library—to discuss Newspeak; it’s ambiguous whether they are a modern day book club or a group of Party members examining a subversive document from the past. Hausam says, “I’ve seen 1984 three times this week, and every time I learn something new about the relationship of the parts. They introduce the book, and at the end they comment on what you’ve seen.”
The characters of Winston, his love interest Julia, the mysterious O’Brien, who is a member of the “Inner Party” are introduced. Large screens integrated into the walls of the room blast out such phrases as “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” “Ignorance is Strength.” And Big Brother is always watching: everyone is under relentless surveillance every moment of their lives.
Winston comes to O’Brien’s attention and at first believes O’Brien also wants to overturn the state, but he’s really just out to entrap Winston. There are scenes of violence as Winston is tortured by O’Brien into revealing his subversive thinking and rejection of the Party’s philosophy, and he is ultimately manipulated horribly into betraying Julia.
“It’s one of the most provocative, thought provoking productions I’ve seen in years,” says Hausam. “It’s incredibly contemporary, smart, relevant and disturbing. But it’s not a feel good time in the theater.”
Hausam will put his artistic stamp on next year’s Broad Stage offerings. He tips his hat to the work of predecessor Dale Franzen, who envisioned, founded and ran The Broad from its inception to its 2008 opening through 2014. “It’s really hard to open a theatre, build the building, raise all that money, and keep raising it every year,” he told me. “A 499-seat theatre is about the most challenging size you can build because ticket sales will never provide enough of the budget.”
As was Franzen’s, Hausam’s goal is “to remain focused on high quality world class artists. But it’s hard to make the arts relevant to a community when you’re only serving 3 percent of the population or the most affluent. That’s just the nature of the economics of the arts in America, unlike Western Europe where subsidies make it possible to keep ticket prices low enough to serve a wider swath of the population. I want to bring in a diverse range of people, get them in the door and while grounding our work in Santa Monica and the Westside, serve the entire community.”
“1984” by Headlong Theatre is onstage through Feb. 6 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Please note: Due to its graphic nature, it’s not recommended for children under the age of 14. Tickets are available at www.thebroadstage.com or call the box office at (310) 434-3200.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications.