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With ‘1984’ on Broadway, Thoughtcrime Hits the Big Time

The production — which stars Tom Sturridge as Winston Smith, the Everyman who rebels against Big Brother, and Olivia Wilde as Julia, the fellow party member with whom he has a forbidden affair — may be arriving on Broadway at a ripe, perhaps even overripe, moment.

Several shows commenting directly or indirectly on Mr. Trump’s rise have opened (and, in the case of Robert Schenkkan’s Off Broadway “Building the Wall,” already closed) since the inauguration. Michael Moore’s one-man show “The Terms of My Surrender” — “Can a Broadway show bring down a sitting president?,” the poster asks — will open just down the block from the Hudson in July.

A commercial for “1984” include images of Mr. Trump; Ms. Conway; and Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, along with such Orwellian slogans as “Ignorance is strength.” During previews, Mr. Macmillan said, more than one audience member has shouted “Resist!”

But if their adaptation — which has not been revised to refer in any way to Mr. Trump — is designed to resist anything, its creators insist, it’s overly self-certain interpretations.

“Our job is to keep the issues open, rather than reducing everything to simple meaning,” Mr. Icke said. “That’s something we worked really hard on four years ago, and that balance stays exactly the same.”

The production matches Orwell’s suddenly hot 68-year-old book with two rising stars of the British theater, both of whom came of age well after the year of its prophetic title.


George Orwell (1903-1950), still timely and lately on the best-seller lists.

Associated Press

Last year, Mr. Icke, 30, became the youngest person to win the Olivier Award for best director, for his modernized adaptation of “The Oresteia.” His “Hamlet,” starring Andrew Scott, is currently one of the most sought-after tickets in the West End. Mr. Macmillan, 36, primarily a playwright, has won acclaim for original works like “People, Places and Things” (which comes to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn this fall) and literary adaptations like Paul Auster’s “City of Glass,” which just finished a run in London.

Their collaboration on “1984” began in 2013, when Mr. Icke was looking for a show based on a nontheatrical text to fill out a season at the Headlong Theater, the company for which he was associate director. Scanning his bookshelf, he settled on Orwell’s novel, for reasons he is hard pressed to explain. “It’s a little like falling in love,” he said. “You only rationalize it afterward.”

He enlisted Mr. Macmillan, who hadn’t read the book since he was a teenager. “It’s much stranger than I remembered,” Mr. Macmillan said. “It’s almost David Lynchian in its osmotic passing through different realities.”

Advance chatter about the production has centered on the harrowing sequence set in the infamous torture chamber Room 101. Ms. Wilde, writing on Twitter last month, offered apologies to audience members at one performance who supposedly fainted during the show (which — symbolism alert! — has a run time of 101 minutes).

But Mr. Macmillan and Mr. Icke’s adaptation grew out of a less sensational part of the book that few people may remember: a scholarly appendix, called “The Principles of Newspeak,” supposedly written long after the fall of Big Brother, explaining how the regime controlled reality by controlling language. While many readers skip the section, it was important enough to Orwell that he threatened to withhold rights from the Book of the Month Club unless the group included it.

The show, which features a large projection screen, weaves the story of Winston’s rebellion with scenes from his memory and dreams, and scenes of a group of readers, seemingly in the present, discussing whether they can believe the novel they — and we — are reading.

The appendix “is a really radical gesture against the rest of the book,” Mr. Macmillan said. “It’s a book about how you can’t trust the written word.”

Mr. Macmillan and Mr. Icke hardly discount the more immediate political resonances that audiences bring into the theater. The original staging, at the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, came just after Edward J. Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency surveillance, and after an off-duty British soldier was hacked to death on a southeast London street. (The show, Mr. Icke notes, is also about “the radicalization of a terrorist.”)

The first New York preview, Mr. Macmillan said, was the day a man deliberately drove a car onto a sidewalk in Times Square, killing one person and injuring 22. Since then, he said, summing up the daily news drip, there have been the Manchester bombing in Britain, Mr. Trump’s cryptic “covfefe tweet” and the announced American withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, all of which, he said, have “infected” the audience in different ways.

People may come in thinking about politics, but the creators hope people will leave also thinking about what it means to trust “the evidence of your eyes and ears,” in the novel’s famous phrase, when so much of what we know is filtered through screens and texts of our own choosing.

“We’re all contradictory, double-thinking creatures,” Mr. Macmillan said. “There’s a lot of confirmation bias in reading this novel. We like to think of it as much simpler than it is.”

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