Review: ‘1984’ production leaves viewers questioning the present

The fall MainStage production draws parallels between George Orwell's dystopian novel and the current political climate.

by Lauren Segal | 2/27/18 12:00am

Although 2018 is just starting, there have already been many times this year that I’ve found myself wondering if I am living in a twisted dystopia. It seems that many have made the parallel between the harrowing state of affairs in George Orwell’s “1984” and the current state of politics. Since President Donald Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway used the politically charged words “alternative facts,” sales of the 20th-century novel spiked drastically. The term is eerily reminiscent of “newspeak,” a means by which the omnipotent Inner Party of Orwell’s novel prohibits unorthodox political thought. This fall, the Dartmouth theater department investigated the relevance of Orwell’s prophetic dystopia to today’s reality in the play “1984,” which opened on Feb. 16 and finished its run Sunday night.

What is immediately noteworthy about the production is director Peter Hackett’s decision to incorporate multimedia and to employ various timelines — 1949, 1984 and 2018. In the first few minutes of the play, a large projector descended on stage and played an interview with Timothy Snyder, author of the 2017 novel “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” The clip finished running and the screen ascended, revealing several characters running a 1940s-era radio station in the midst of broadcasting a radio-adaptation of the recently-released novel “1984.”  Hackett’s play, although based on Orwell’s 1949 classic, drew upon the 1949 NBC University Theater radio production of “1984.” 

The performance jumps around often ­— were we watching a radio performance in 1949 or were we in the woods with protagonists Winston Smith and Julia in 1984?  Whether intentional or not, the mixed timelines blurred the lines between Orwell’s imagined 1984 and what is happening around us today in 2018, insinuating that the two timelines are indistinguishable just as they were indistinguishable onstage. For example, at the climax of the first act, a swarm of government officers stormed the theater as Julia and Winston were arrested onstage. The officer’s vests sported the letters I.C.E. for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, making it very clear that the fates of the two protagonists could easily take place in today’s tyrannical America.

The actors consistently delivered convincing performances that grounded the wandering timeline. Winston and Julia, played by Owen Page ’19 and Kerrigan Quenemoen ’20, respectively, were captivating to watch as their cautious romance blossomed amidst the Inner Party’s oppressive regime. Justine Goggin ’18 as O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party, was terrifying to behold, her clipped voice and deceptive nature despicable to the point where I couldn’t look away.  

The use of mixed media made for a politically-loaded performance as clips from music videos and short propaganda films from the World War II era punctuated Winston and Julia’s storyline. What could be interpreted by some as distracting from the primary plot instead added depth and drew frighteningly apt parallels between the original novel and issues such as police brutality, as symbolized by “I Can’t Breathe” by Pussy Riot, the group’s first English song and a dedication to Eric Garner, and the perceived onset of tyranny in the United States, as demonstrated by Snyder’s interview. The frequent cuts from the dimly lit theater to the bright projections hurt my eyes — but in a good way, as I was constantly reminded of the relevance of the Inner Party’s corruption in considering modern-day politics. 

The production not only excelled in its experimentation with different forms of media but was also visually riveting. Perhaps the most astounding feat of stage design in the play was the sterile prison in the Ministry of Love, seemingly suspended over the gaping darkness of the stage below, glass walls displaying the decrepit figures of Winston and the other prisoners as they were called out to the notorious room 101. I felt suffocated and, to be honest, slightly claustrophobic watching O’Brien torture Winston repeatedly in the prison, speaking to how effective the production was in relaying its message. The play understandably came with a warning of violent and disturbing scenes, which were ultimately necessary to accurately depict the violent and disturbing scenes of present-day America. 

At times, the play lost sight of the immigrant narrative, which I believe was used to connect the tyrannical worlds of 1984 and the present day. As “the Red-Armed Prole Woman” stood in rags washing clothes singing background music to Winston and Julia’s tragedy, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Winston and Julia were not always the best representatives of the people who suffer under tyranny, particularly if the play wished to address the treatment of certain illegal immigrants under current policies. Although the play attempts to make a connection between the oppression of Winston and Julia and the oppression of immigrants in the modern day, it is inherently impossible to make that connection when neither Winston nor Julia represent immigrant narratives. The single immigrant character was a background role in the story of Winston and Julia, who were a part of the racial majority in Orwell’s dystopia. Perhaps this flaw finds root in Snyder’s “On Tyranny,” but the call to remain a patriot amidst nascent tyranny forces immigrant narratives into the backseat. The play effectively completes its intended parallel, albeit not holistically. 

Juxtaposed against the cacophony of Trump’s voice, the play ended on a lighter note as the cast came together to hold candles as they sang a song of hope. I left the theater light-hearted, but perhaps too light-hearted, considering the weight that I had just been asked to bear. 

If the purpose of “1984” was to convince its audience that America today is terrifyingly similar to Orwell’s dystopia, it was successful, as I was thoroughly convinced.