The Horror of Government Surveillance Is Recharged in 1984

Headlong theater company's 1984EXPAND
Headlong theater company's 1984
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Perhaps the most emblematic of the ironies in 1984, the scintillating adaptation of George Orwell’s totalitarian surveillance satire currently playing at the Broad Stage, comes early. That’s when a member of a book club discussing the novel’s influence asks, “How can you say the book changed the world when nothing has changed?” As if in response, a chirping ring tone disrupts the debate as the group fishes in their pockets for the offending smartphone.

At a time when the National Security Agency daily harvests metadata on billions of our phone calls and eavesdrops on 200 million of our text messages, finding prophetic relevance in Orwell’s 1949 dystopian horror classic is hardly rocket science. The real coup in this stylishly inventive production from Britain’s Headlong theater company is its recognition of our own passive complicity in trading technological convenience for what Louis Brandeis famously called “the right to be let alone.”

Like New York’s Elevator Repair Service, co-creators/directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan embrace the broader gestalt of the novel — the experience of reading it; its deeply rooted place in the culture — even as their script effectively distills the harrowing paranoia and epistemological underpinnings of Orwell's narrative.

Matthew Spencer is a memorable Winston Smith, the haunted Outer Party member in the Ministry of Truth tasked with rewriting history to conform to the ever-changing party line. Hara Yannas provides fine support as Julia, his promiscuous lover and co-conspirator in opposing Big Brother. But it is Tim Dutton’s chilling presence as O’Brien, the sententiously sadistic Inner Party apparatchik who engineers Winston's and Julia’s downfall, that ratchets the horror.

The true star of 1984, however, is the production itself. Icke and Macmillan evoke the novel’s unrelenting suspense using sleight-of-hand visual misdirection. And designer Chloe Lamford’s windowed and wood-paneled reading room set, topped by a large horizontal projection screen (and featuring Tim Reid’s surveillance video) — together with Natasha Chivers’ eerie low-key lighting and Tom Gibbons’ explosive sound — is the metaphoric lynchpin that captures Winston's fragmenting psyche along with the wrenching upheaval of his reality.

The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; through Feb. 6. (310) 434-3200, thebroadstage.com.

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