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'1984' Comes To Broadway And 'It's Not An Easy Evening'

Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge star as Julia and Winston in the stage adaptation of George Orwell's <em>1984.</em>
Julieta Cervantes
Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge star as Julia and Winston in the stage adaptation of George Orwell's 1984.

Ignorance is Strength, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Big Brother is Watching: 1984has come to Broadway. George Orwell's dystopian novel tells the story of a man who works at the Ministry of Truth creating fake news for a totalitarian regime. The stage adaptation opens in New York on Friday.

After a recent performance of 1984, Dorit Friedman, a doctor from Great Neck, N.Y., says she was stuck by how contemporary the story feels. "Big Brother is watching us, that's for sure ..." she says. "Little did we know that that was going to be reality."

Facebook and Amazon know what you like. Orwell wrote his novel in reaction to the fascism and totalitarianism that had engulfed the globe during and after World War II. The novel has always been a steady seller, but since the election e-book sales spiked.

"So far this year we sold over 200,000 copies, just in five months and I don't think that's going to slow down," says Bruce Nichols, the book's current publisher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. "1984 holds up because Orwell's political incisiveness, when he talks about newspeak, it applies to all kinds of spin which we see every day. And it seems to only ever get worse."

Two days after Donald Trump's inauguration, Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase "alternative facts" on Meet the Press.Around that same time, 1984 shot up to No. 1 on Amazon.

"It's quite something to bring it to New York now, in this political climate," says Duncan Macmillan, who co-authored and co-directed the Broadway adaptation. He points to one moment in the book when protagonist Winston Smith says, "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four."

The audience reaction changes nightly, depending on the current news cycle.

"Last night was like a sort of volatile town hall meeting," Macmillan says, of a preview performance that took place the same day that Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. "People were shouting out 'resist!' People were arguing with characters and applauding certain sentiments. And it wasn't just, you know, a liberal audience. It was little pockets around the room sort of debating with each other. And that felt really live and exciting."

The actors feel it, too.

"We're all in this room together, we're all experiencing this together," says Tom Sturridge, who plays Winston Smith. "We influence each other. The way you react, shout out in this play, which is extraordinary, makes you enormously complicit in the evening that we have together.

Olivia Wilde, who plays Winston's lover, Julia (people have a tendency to forget there's a love story at the center of 1984) says the stage adaptation messes with the audience's heads, much like reading the book. Winston Smith is willing to do anything to bring down the government for which he works, even when pressed by a duplicitous character.

"We can feel the audience slowly falling into line behind Winston; they embrace him as their hero," she says. "They root for him and then [when the antagonist,] O'Brien says, 'If it would help the party, would you throw acid in a small child's face?' And we can hear this gasp from the audience. And he says, 'Yes.' And suddenly we question, 'Well, hang on a minute. Am I Winston? I thought I was Winston. Am I willing to go that far? I don't think I am.' "

The adaptation forthrightly deals with the novel's concepts — who controls information and language to assert power, living in a perpetual present, the concept of doublethink — keeping two opposing thoughts in one's mind, while genuinely believing both. But it's the visceral nature of the production, with graphic images of torture, which has made some audience members walk out.

"It's not an easy evening, I should warn people," Macmillan says. "It doesn't give you any conclusions, actually. And it leaves you with something, I hope, if it works properly, to resolve in yourself and with each other to try and work out what the hell it is you've just been exposed to, as it is with the novel."

Amanda Bias, a high school English teacher from New Jersey who came with a group of co-workers, teaches the book to her seniors.

"I don't think kids necessarily know what they're always getting as a source, in the information they're getting," she says. "And we have to teach them what's right and what's wrong and, at least, what's credible. And I think that's a pretty good message."

Especially, she says, in the world we live in now, where two plus two can sometimes equal five.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.