April 2, 2020
‘1984’ Review: A Stunning Dystopia on Our Telescreens Alley Theatre’s stripped-down staging closely tracks the George Orwell classic.
‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,” George Orwell’s parable of the coming of Stalinist totalitarianism to England, is the most significant political novel of the 20th century—but one with which many readers are by now so familiar that they can no longer come to it fresh. Adapting it for the stage is one way to restore the immediacy of Orwell’s nightmare vision, but the 2014 West End production of the Robert Icke-Duncan Macmillan stage version, which played on Broadway three years ago, was a bells-and-whistles multimedia extravaganza that strayed too far from the original novel for its own good. Not so Michael Gene Sullivan’s no-frills, six-actor 2006 version, intended for performance on a near-bare stage. The script tracks the book closely, spelling out the once-unprintable obscenities at which Orwell could only hint in the late 1940s, though most everything else, even the telescreens, is left to the imagination.
This strikes me as the right way to go, and the Alley Theatre’s Houston premiere of “1984,” as the stage version is known, should by all rights have been a box-office smash. Alas, the coronavirus closed the theater before the show could open, but the company was able to tape a performance and it is now available as a pay-per-view webcast. Crisp, unflashily photographed and as hard-hitting as a right to the kidney, it comes across with bright clarity on the small screen, and even if you know the novel by heart, I expect that you’ll find it—to paraphrase something one of Orwell’s characters said—tripleplusgood.
The six actors, all of whom are members of the Alley’s resident acting company, play multiple roles save for Shawn Hamilton, who is appropriately fearful and desperate as Winston Smith (you can all but smell the sweat on his brow). Everyone else provides exciting support, with Chris Hutchison, who plays O’Brien, Winston’s grand inquisitor, giving an exceptionally memorable performance. His grotesque parody of kindliness as he tortures Winston in order to convert him to the gospel of goodthink is striking.
The décor of this “1984,” staged with clean, spare economy by Rob Melrose, the Alley’s artistic director, is as fine as the acting. Michael Locher’s stark unit set consists of a circular platform ringed with swivel chairs at whose center is a sunken pit lined with searchlights. Raquel Barreto, the costume designer, has dressed everyone in shades of black, gray and taupe, creating an impression of monochromatic hopelessness. Cliff Caruthers’s space-age electronic music and sound design add immeasurably to the total effect, especially in the torture scenes, which are all the more frightening for their restraint.
Even though the Hubbard Theatre, the Alley’s mainstage venue, is a 774-seat house, this “1984” is a small-scale show whose strength is rooted in its intimacy. It wouldn’t surprise me if it works at least as well when viewed at home as would have been the case had the show gone on. It’s a must-see webcast, incontestably superior to the 2017 Broadway production. Comfort food it isn’t, but if you’re up for stronger fare, make haste to check it out.
—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author of “Satchmo at the Waldorf.”