In the lobby of the Lansburg Theatre in D.C., a sign warns patrons of loud noises, strobing lights, and live animals. It was a plain white signboard with black lettering that in no way prepared me for what I was about to see. In short, the most intense, immersive theatrical experience of my life: George Orwell’s 1984, performed by the U.K.’s Headlong Theatre Company at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I was lucky to get a reduced price ticket for their Young Prose Nights. The production was one hundred minutes with no intermission. Here is my reaction (with spoilers about the plot) written just after the end of the show, as I waited for a train home.
A bombardment of newspeak, strobed doublethink. A manic takedown and victory of Big Brother. He watches on wide white panels above the stage, billboard-sized visions of Party Members’ faces. He watches with flashlights pointed in your eyes, with screaming telescreens, with Two Minutes Hate. Hate—Swine—they’re shouting as the bloodied face of a thought criminal shakes and stutters out apologies. As he’s shot in the head while we watch. They fling papers: confettied betrayals of The Party. Swine, they shout, swine.
Nearly two hours: a barrage of screaming, double speaking panic, suspicion.
Gunshots in the dark.
There was no ‘typical’ for this show. No expected. Just moments piled on one another, suspicion torqued with static, building in your ears. It sent the woman two rows in front of me forward, head pitched between her knees, trying perhaps to breathe.
For anyone who’s read 1984, the most horrifying part is of course Room 101. The room where one goes to be unpersoned. The education of Winston Smith. “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.” I wasn’t prepared—couldn’t have been prepared for Room 101. Just as Winston—and Parsons before him—aren’t prepared. We, the audience, are thrust into MiniLove to watch Winston writhe. Scream. His spit dribbles down on the telescreens, laced with blood. They all stare at the audience—lights up, shattering the fourth wall—Winston calling, begging, “Stand up,” he pleads. “Someone help me. Stand up.” We become complicit in his suffering.
The staging work on this play helped create an experience that was very disturbing, as well as thought-provoking, pulling audiences back to 1984, up to 2050 (as the book’s Appendix calls for) and settles us right here in 2016. It asks us to look up from our screens and notice what’s happening. The harmony (and dissonance) of the camera work, the flashing, painful lighting, the fog, the harsh and grating noises pulled us deep into IngSoc, frightened us, made us question the reality of their story and the reality of our own. Lines were repeated over and over,
subtle machinations to twist the plot and make us second guess. “Where do you think you are, Winston?” was said at least a dozen times, each more confusing and horrifying than the last.
The cast received a standing ovation as they stood at the front of the stage, smiles surprising after such a show. They were incredible and shocking. Synced with each other on the stage and behind it. They have melded stage and screen, avante garde and literature. In short, it was wonderful.
Watch the Trailer: