Which came first – the dystopia or the dystopian play? Does the answer really matter when the people around you in the theater are fainting, screaming, vomiting and breaking into fights that result in arrests? That’s the scene at the Hudson Theater in New York City where the Broadway play 1984, adapted from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, has moved from previews to performances.
“You can stay and watch or you can leave — that’s a perfectly fine reaction to watching someone be tortured. But if this show is the most upsetting part of anyone’s day, they’re not reading the news headlines. Things are much worse than a piece of theater getting under your skin a little bit.”
Director Robert Icke hinted to The Hollywood Reporter that the cause of the convulsions in the Hudson are a little of both the play and the world. Audience members who read the book may not remember Orwell’s depictions of the months of horrific torture endured by Winston Smith for resisting the totalitarian regime of Big Brother. Those who saw only the movie, which toned down the violence, or Apple’s Super Bowl commercial or have just a hearsay exposure to Nineteen Eighty-Four are more likely the ones passing out or puking. According to the review in Vulture, the play is not for the queasy.
“The torture scenes are visceral, ghastly, and hair-raisingly vivid. Blood is spattered and spit out; at least one beating about the face, occasioned by one awful command, ‘teeth,’ had a large part of the audience flinching.”
The actors on stage are not immune to the violence of the play. Tom Sturridge, who plays Smith, broke his nose during one performance, and Olive Wilde, who plays Julia, dislocated a rib, split her lip and broke her tailbone. Now THAT’S method acting.
Director Duncan Macmillan makes no apologies and plans no changes to the play that The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley calls “torture porn.”
“We’re not trying to be willfully assaultive or exploitatively shock people, but there’s nothing here or in the disturbing novel that isn’t happening right now, somewhere around the world: People are being detained without trial, tortured and executed. We can sanitize that and make people feel comforted, or we can simply present it without commentary and allow it to speak for itself.”
Or puke for itself. Just to be on the safe side, children under 13 are not allowed and security guards are stationed throughout the theater in case fights break out as they did during one preview performance, resulting in audience members being forcefully removed and charged. Again, which came first … the dystopian play or the dystopian response?
While the words in the play come directly from the novel, the location has been changed from future London to future New York. Is that enough to cause the reactions it does? Why are they fainting, vomiting, screaming and fighting? Is it 1984 or 2017?