“1984,” based on a novel written by George Orwell in 1949, is one of the most loved books of all time. Written in the wake of World War II, the novel created the world of Oceania in which government surveillance and control had become so powerful that all individual thought and expression had been effectively eliminated. The play, which first premiered in the U.K. in 2013 before spreading to Broadway in 2017 and then BareStage this past weekend, progressed in much the same way, attempting to adapt the book as closely as possible for the stage.
“1984” is a grossly complicated novel. Orwell created an entire new world that had been thought out to the most minute details. A world this complex can hardly be condensed within a two-hour theatrical production. For this reason, the first half was tasked with so much exposition that the story telling got lost, and it dragged on egregiously long. When there were developments, such as Julia admitting her love for Winston, it seemed to come out of nowhere and felt almost silly. Without the use of notepassing and diary entries, which the novel makes liberal use of, the dialogue equivalents of similar sentiments felt out of place and awkward.
One of the key issues with the novel “1984” is the vapidness of the character of Julia. She falls acutely into the category of a “manic pixie dream girl” obsessed with sex and spontaneity, a perfect foil to Winston’s serious, nihilistic outlook.
In BareStage’s production of “1984,” some of this conflict between stereotypical characteristics of men and women were remedied by the fact that both characters were portrayed by women. With no changes to the dialogue, however, the casting seemed more like cross-gender casting than an intention to bring anything especially queer to the storytelling.
In fact, the script actually stripped Julia of some of her more manic pixie dream girl characteristics but didn’t ultimately replace them with any more depthful decisions. In the end, she didn’t even seem hedonistic in any type of engaging way; instead, she was lifeless and two dimensional.
The parallels between the world of “1984” and the present day are, of course, apparent as ever. Narrowing language through the use of “newspeak” can be easily compared to the way social media is proliferating and literature is waning. The attacks on Emmanuel Goldstein and the constant war state of Oceania can be compared to how our own country has manipulated the use of “us” and “them” to beef up defense spending and, propelled by greed, launch into global conflicts.
These conflicts were introduced in the first half of the show, which ran for roughly an hour and a half, while the second part, preoccupied solely with the torture of Winston, lasted a mere 30 minutes.
By keeping all of the instances of torture in the second act, the production promotes the idea that it is first and foremost about government power in the form of physical violence. The torture of political enemies, however, is not a foreign concept to our world or even our country — what is far more terrifying is the idea of the ways in which we could be manipulated by government forces without even realizing it. The horror in “1984” is found more in the world of Oceania than the ultimate torture of Winston.
“1984” as a novel remains entirely timeless. It exists in a world completely other than ours, while elements of our world can always be seen in it in one way or another. The completeness of this world of Oceania, however, is just what keeps the novel crystallized in this place of timelessness. Not everything timely must be adapted into other limited mediums — sometimes it just needs to be read again with new eyes.