‘1984’: First show of new Broadway season ‘intense,’ ‘discombobulating’

In a year in which dystopian narratives have dominated literature and television, it’s only fitting that “1984,” a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel of the same name, officially kicks off the 2017-2018 Broadway season. Directed by London stage mainstays Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, “1984” opened on June 22 at the Hudson Theatre starring Tony-nominee Tom Sturridge (“Orphans”) as the timid protagonist Winston, who rebels against the propagandist government of Oceania and its leader, the near-omniscient Big Brother. The notable cast also includes screen star Olivia Wilde and theater veterans Reed Birney and Michael Potts.

“1984” impressed only a few of the critics. Adam Feldman (Time Out New York) calls the production “gripping,” rating it four out of five stars, with praise for the “remarkable” Sturridge, “hard-edged” Wilde, and the “masterfully unflappable” Birney. Elisabeth Vincentelli (Newsday) also found much to appreciate, deeming the show a “powerful but grueling” theatergoing experience featuring “an assault on the senses” from the “blasts of deafening sounds” to the “blinding light.” Like Feldman, she applauds the “fully committed” Sturridge and “assured” Wilde, who’s making her Broadway debut.

Other critics walked away less taken with the production. Ben Brantley (New York Times) refers to this adaptation of Orwell’s novel “discombobulating,” discussing the show’s “self-sabotaging ambiguity” as both its “most ingenious aspect” and “its most irritating,” due in large part to Icke and Macmillan’s approach to the source material. Similarly, Christopher Bonanos (Vulture) blames the “weak,” “stentorian and overdirect” script, which detracts from the occasionally “inventively and thoughtfully deployed” stagecraft. Once the show kicks into high gear after the first hour, though, he deems it “visceral, ghastly, and hair-raisingly vivid,” with particular praise for Birney, who “is just about perfect in the role… His dead calm is the most menacing thing onstage.”

Based on its uneven critical reaction and its extremely early run, currently slated to close in October, “1984” will most likely miss out on any Tony Awards nominations come May 2018. Should it gain any traction, though, watch out for Birney. Not only did he receive near universal praise for his performance, but he’s also a beloved New York stage veteran who just won his first Tony in 2016 for Featured Actor in a Play for his performance in “The Humans.”

While the technically-savvy and complex production seems like it could conceivably contend in the Design categories, with Scenic and Costume Design by Chloe Lamford and Lighting Design by Natasha Chivers, many critics found the visual and aural elements grating or even intolerable, with Brantley describing the iconic torture scene “graphic enough to verge on torture porn.”

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