New adaptation of ‘1984’ looks forward and back

The cast of  '1984,' now at the Loeb Drama Center. Photo: Ben Gibbs

The cast of ‘1984,’  now at the Loeb Drama Center. Photo: Ben Gibbs

CAMBRIDGE – Walk down the street of any major city in the U.S., and chances are there are several sets of eyes on you.

There may be several sets of eyes – or sets of ears– interested in what you are doing or saying. Iif you were in a certain part of the world at a certain time — say the old East Germany or Russia — what you said or did could have serious ramifications when it comes to your freedom – or your survival.

In 1949, novelist George Orwell envisioned such a world in his seminal work “1984.”

A new stage adaptation of “1984” by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan is now being presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center, developed by the U.K. Theater troupe Headlong. It had a smash-hit run in the West End of London and is now on tour.

It is a bone-chilling, harrowing re-telling of Orwell’s cautionary tale about what could happen to a society that lets down its guard.

Hara Yannas in '1984.' Photo: Ben Gibbs

Hara Yannas in ‘1984.’ Photo: Ben Gibbs

Comrade 6079 is Winston Smith (Matthew Spencer), a 39-year-old Outer Party member who is living at the decrepit Victory Mansions in what was London and works in the Ministry of Truth, where he scrubs down history — making sure the events of the past conform to the present wishes of the party.

It is there he begins the first words of a secret diary – an incredibly dangerous act indeed in the state of Oceania, one of three large nation-states in Orwell’s world, along with Eurasia and Eastaisia,

Those who run afoul of the ubiquitous Thought Police by committing “thoughtcrimes” – just thinking about the act is enough — and run the risk of being unpersoned: secretly murdered and erased from society, with their very existence and every record of their existence deleted from history.

Members of the Outer Party such as Winston also have ubiquitous two-way telescreens in every room of their apartments, allowing the Party leader “Big Brother” to keep tabs on them.

This adaptation marks the first attempt to dramatize the appendix of Orwell’s book, which concerns the principles of Newspeak, the constantly devolving language of Oceania. The new platform allows the action we’re seeing to be set in a past time, with the characters at the end looking back at a time long past.

That means characters in opening scenes can peer over the notes kept by Winston about what happened to him even as he sits there, being asked for one of many times during the production: “Do you know where you are?”

Some of those surrounding Winston are part of his narrative, while others are those from far into the future looking back and trying to make sense of what happened.

This production is lifted almost immeasurably by the superb work by the designers working under Icke and MacMillan, who also co-directed. Chloe Lamford’s set for the Victory Gardens is a bleak, forlorn building. The lighting and sound by Natasha Chivers and Tom Gibbons alternately stuns and startles, with throbbing strobe lights signifying changes in time while Tim Reid’s videos cast a sinister background, often evoking the Party slogans.

Chivers’ slightly off-putting lighting also creates a claustrophobic effect that is just right for characters who are already paranoid and looking over their shoulders at all times.

Winston – already living dangerously – hooks up with Julia , another Outer Party member who makes a sudden, overt connection with Winston. They begin an affair, and they believe they are safe in their offscreen refuge but we have eyes on them all the time, thanks to Reid’s video “eyes” which finds them in their hideaway.

Because Reid’s video allows us to see all that goes on between them and, we presume – so can the Thought Police, which unfortunately also includes their purported friend O’Brien (Tim Dutton), one of those who pretends to identify with those resisting such as Winston and Julia, only to pounce on them later.

After both Winston and Julia are arrested and Winston is hauled off to a “white room” – Room 101, the room in the Ministry of Love designated for questioning – the tone and mood turn even darker.

During his interrogation, O’Brien digs deeper, ever deeper into Winston’s soul until it’s almost too painful to watch any longer. At times,the violence will be graphic and sickening. And O’Brien will taunt Winston, who wanted something better. “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

There is the lingering image of “1984” as a bleak dystopic world whose inhabitants are hopelessly lost. But because this adaptation has chosen to take the view of those looking back from a more enlightened time well after “1984,” it tells us that no one’s fate – or the fate of a people – is beyond hope, and that it may be possible to throw off the yoke of oppression and fight back to find a brighter day.

But even in today’s world “Big Brother” is watching, and we would do well to remember the words of one Ben Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or security.”

The American Repertory Theatre presentation of the Headlong, Almeida Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse productibn of George Orwell’s “1984.” Adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. Set design by Chkloe Lamford. Ligvhting by Natasha Chivers Siound by Tom Gibbons. Video by Tim Reid. At the Loeb Drama center through March 6.