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Review Roundup: Big Brother Has Its Eyes on Opening Night of 1984

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1984

Adapted and directed by Icke and Macmillan, 1984 officially arrives in New York this evening on the heels of four wildly successful U.K. runs. The strictly limited engagement began performances on May 18, 2017, and tonight is opening night on Broadway at the new Hudson Theatre.

One of the most widely referenced and best known fiction titles of all time, Orwell's 1984 has sold over 30 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 65 languages, surging again this year to the top of the bestselling lists in the wake of "fake news" and "alternative facts."

Now, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have adapted the novel into a chilling theatrical event as we watch the iconic characters of Winston, Julia and O'Brien-played respectively by the extraordinary trio of Tony® Award nominee Tom Sturridge, Olivia Wilde in her Broadway debut, and Tony® Award winner Reed Birney-negotiate a world that believes, as the novel boldly exclaims: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

1984 also stars Wayne Duvall (Parsons), Carl Hendrick Louis (Martin), Nick Mills (Syme), Michael Potts (Charrington), and Cara Seymour (Mrs. Parsons).

Let's see what the critics had to say!


Ben Brantley, The New York Times: In periods when the world and its inhabitants seem too vicious to bear, some people find themselves drawn magnetically to what might be called feel-bad entertainment. I mean the sort of book, song or show that massages your anxiety the way your tongue might insistently probe an abscessed tooth. If that's the way you're feeling at the moment - and why do I suspect that's the case? - you may well find pleasurable pain in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's discombobulating stage adaptation of George Orwell's "1984," which opened on Thursday night at the Hudson Theater. But it will be pain of a different order (possibly involving nausea) from the empathetic kind you experience reading Orwell's ever-engrossing book.

Thorn Geier, TheWrap: Even for audiences inclined to feel jaded about revisiting a story from a long-ago school reading list, this "1984" manages to pump new, discomforting life into the mother of all dystopias. Icke and MacMillan also hit on some home truths that feel all too pertinent at a time when so many are called to "resist" authority. "The people will not revolt," O'Brien notes. "They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what's really happening."

Matt Windman, amNY: Running about 101 minutes (in a nod to "room 101," the novel's chamber of horrors), this visceral and unpredictable staging is more exciting and effective than this summer's other politically-oriented productions (including Robert Schenkkan's prison drama "Building the Wall" and The Public Theater's uneasily Trump-infused "Julius Caesar").

Isabella Biedenharn, Entertainment Weekly: Unfortunately, whether it's because the real world today is stranger than fiction (it's worth noting that the show's U.K. and L.A. runs happened pre-election) or because TV dystopias, like Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, are already perfecting political dread, 1984 doesn't have the same foreboding effect audiences might expect from a book that's continually felt eerily prescient for decades. Still, the acting is phenomenal and the wildly innovative production makes for a memorable show - even if it isn't quite as scary as the world outside the theater.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: When was the last time you felt scared at the theater? Not disturbed or perturbed or provoked, but scared? The harrowing climactic torture scene of 1984, adapted from George Orwell's novel by directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, is intense in a way I've never seen on Broadway: It's gut-churning. Children under 13 have been barred from attending it; even adults may shake in their seats, or at least avert their eyes. This gripping show rewards watching, though, and not just in that visit to Room 101 at the grotesquely named Ministry of Love. Orwell's vision of a surveillance state awash in groupthink and propaganda was published in 1949 and set in 1984, but it remains uncannily suggestive of the present and the future.

Christopher Bonanos, Vulture: It's a show highly dependent on special effects and stagecraft, with a lot of thunderous noise and blinding flashes of light when bad stuff comes to pass, and the most striking bit of production takes us entirely offstage: When Winston and his fellow rebel Julia have their clandestine meetups in the back room of a dusty London shop, we see the scenes play out on an enormous video screen above the main set. It's not clear, until fairly late in the play, whether those slightly grainy scenes are being played live or were pre-taped. That's the point: We're meant to consider the unreliability of images and their sources, and the ubiquity of cameras recording our every move. The big video monitor is of wide proportions, similar to those of the novel's telescreens. And though it's a little off-putting to see perhaps 20 percent of a play mediated on a big TV, it's a legitimate idea for theater-making, inventively and thoughtfully deployed.

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: Such hucksterism really is unnecessary, however. The show memorably reinvents one of the most terrifying tales of modern times, one that also happens to be among the best known, not only through the popularity of the 1949 novel, but in films - especially the 1984 version (!) starring John Hurt, Richard Burton and Jan Sterling. And although the import this limited run was prompted by the election of Donald J. Trump, the production makes no pandering attempt at relevance (as was the case with the recently closed Julius Caesar in Central Park). It lets Orwell speak for himself, and he does just fine, thank you, though in a distilled version that must make blatantly visual what the novel takes pains to incite in the consciousness.

Charles Isherwood, Broadway News: Summer entertainment options do not get more counterintuitive than the Broadway adaptation of George Orwell's "1984" that opened at the Hudson Theatre on Thursday, just as beach season swings into high gear. In truth, to call this almost unrelievedly grim production entertainment may be misleading. If you're in the mood for a meal of pure spinach, to use a now-outmoded food metaphor, this 100-minute immersion in one man's bleak odyssey through a brutally oppressive culture certainly fits the ticket.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: A new British stage adaptation of George Orwell's Dystopian novel, now at the Hudson Theatre, is an assault on the senses, pointedly designed to run over an audience like a tank crushing resistors in its path. Here's what has me fidgety, though. To some degree, the strobe lights, gunshots and gore become such a distraction from the story that they threaten to overwhelm its dire message about government run amok. Where do you dial down the noise and turn up the narrative? The answer will differ for everyone, but if you go, here's some advice -- bring earplugs.

Jason Zinoman, Bloomberg News: Yet the most forceful theatrical response to the administration is now on Broadway, with a nerve-jangling adaptation of George Orwell's classic novel 1984, which just opened at the Hudson Theatre. This harrowing production stages what might be the most famous picture of a totalitarian future, one that's penetrated the lexicon ("Big Brother," "double-think") and subconscious of generations of readers because of its vision of perpetual war, constant surveillance, and state-sponsored lies.

Elizabeth Vincentelli, Newsday: The show doesn't convincingly bring to life this constant invasion of privacy, but gains traction as soon as the affair is exposed as Winston, screaming like the damned, endures terrifying "re-education" at the hands of O'Brien (Tony winner Reed Birney, most recently of "The Humans"), whose preternaturally calm demeanor contrasts with his inhuman actions. Even a possibly optimistic coda about the end of the dictatorship fails to reassure. When lies are the norm, how can you tell that they have stopped?

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: This dramatization of George Orwell's 1949 dystopian classic serves as a reminder. For all its moving set pieces, along with a busy, ear-blasting soundscape, frequent blackouts, blinding lights and live video, it's strangely unmoving and low-impact. The action meanders and jumps in time, so some familiarity with the story is a must. On the plus side, authors and directors Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan deserve credit for letting Orwell's cautionary story about a world of fake news and government control speak for itself.

Nicole Serratore. The Stage: Icke and Macmillan employ a narrative framing around the play. Future readers of Winston's book discuss it seemingly with Winston in the past. Repeating scenes, meta layering, and glitches in sound, light and language keep us pondering what reality is. The production presents a gripping untrustworthy, unstable environment. Though the discombobulation is intentional, sometimes the direction leaves us struggling to decode incidents in the play. Despite the disturbing universe created, Sturridge and Wilde are aloof and reveal less sympathy than their West End predecessors. But Birney brings a fearsome calm to his duplicitous role.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: There's nothing subtle about this unrelentingly grim adaptation of a literary sci-fi novel that's been selling like bootleg sex tapes in recent political years. (In the month after Kellyanne Conway's infamous utterance about "alternative facts," the book skyrocketed to the top of Amazon's bestseller list.) The catch phrases that chilled your blood when you read the book - "thought police," "newspeak," "doublethink," "thoughtcrimes," and, of course, "Big Brother Is Watching You" - are spoken on stage and projected on screens of a chillingly futuristic set designed by Chloe Lamford.

Roma Torre, NY1: It is truly frightening to see the parallels between George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984" and the state of our union today. Orwell wrote of "doublethink" and "Newspeak." We have alternate facts and fake news. Of course, we're not ruled by an authoritarian Big Brother figure - at least not yet - but Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's harrowing stage adaptation leaves little doubt we are being watched. This is not an easy play for us to watch. Icke and Macmillan, who also co-directed, employ disorienting effects: light and sound disruptions mess with our heads, the story seems to jump back and forth in non-linear fashion, and the torture sequence at the end is brutally graphic.

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