Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘1984’ is a riveting, relevant dystopian tale

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Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘1984’ is a riveting, relevant dystopian tale
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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Ben Gibb, Headlong)

George Orwell’s classic dystopian tale “1984” is as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1948. We don’t call them the “thought police” today, but the concept of controlling the thoughts and behavior of the masses by government through media, messaging (cue Marshall McLuhan) and mind control still has an eerie, somewhat familiar, ring to it.

We saw it recognized in “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a film about erasing memories; “The Truman Show,” where hidden cameras were used to track thoughts and in “The Hunger Games” series.

In this version of “1984,” now playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, directors and adaptors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan construct an imaginative theatrical retelling of the book, further intensified by video designer Tim Reid’s haunting projections and film sequences shown in wide screen above the actors.

The combination of the filmed offstage events and live onstage acting serves to confuse the viewer as to what is real and what is imagined — the very same question protagonist Winston Smith ponders about his life. For the audience, it’s just as chancy to draw any conclusions.

To add to the complexity, the plot swings back and forth like a pendulum, from World War II to 2050. It is both evocative and immediate, making for an exciting piece of stagecraft.

Winston, played by the extraordinarily talented Matthew Spencer, works in the Ministry of Truth. Under the radar, he keeps a diary for the “future unborn.” In it, he hopes to record his memories and thoughts before they are discovered, deleted and denied by Big Brother — the all-seeing, all-knowing, government agency charged with the destruction of language and memory and the obliteration of newspaper accounts and photographic evidence.

In this way, personal memories are supplanted by those approved by the government. Citizens are kept in constant fear that they will be turned in by their neighbors, family members or even the thought police, who survey all activity and broadcast to citizens by way of telescreens. As a government agent of mind control, O’Brien, played by the terrifying Tim Dutton, puts it, “The price of sanity is submission. We do not tolerate a rebellion.” Cue Edward Snowden.

In this brave new world of Oceania, policies are enforced through fear tactics. There is even a Newspeak dictionary, containing freshly minted words to diminish critical thought. More draconian is that, in this ruthless ideology, love and sex are forbidden and could land someone in Room 101 in the Ministry of Love, a place of terror and torture.

Yet Winston finds a kindred spirit and lover in Julia, played magnificently by Hara Yannas. Together they bond in their shared hatred of the system, while fulfilling their desires in a love nest away from the prying eyes of the government — or so they think.

This is intense theatre. It’s thought provoking, brave, electrifying and features a bold supporting cast. Expect vividly portrayed violence enhanced by explosive special effects lighting by Natasha Chivers, and hair-raising sound design by Tom Gibbons.

This is a wonderful production, yet not for the faint of heart.

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