It isn’t often in today’s Broadway landscape that audiences are known to faint or vomit mid-show, nor do we often hear stories of theatergoers being arrested for breaking into fights during or after a performance. Gone are the days when audiences would yell at actors because they were so consumed by the performance that they feared for a performer’s life. And yet, at the Hudson Theatre in New York, audiences have been witnessing these very events since previews began of a new adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.
The production, starring Olivia Wilde, Reed Birney, and Tom Sturridge, has been shocking audiences since it opened in London, but American audiences have seemed especially prone to intense reactions to its graphic portrayals of torture as well as the play’s message of resistance to government misinformation. It’s a hot button topic in the United States at the moment and the source novel has seen a resurgence in popularity since Inauguration Day 2017.
With the current administration’s use of phrases like “alternative facts” and constant cries of “fake news”, it seems the perfect time for such an adaptation. The story centers around Winston Smith (Sturridge) who silently deals with the oppression in fictional Oceania where every move is examined under the watchful eye of their leader, Big Brother. Winston works in the Records department of the Ministry of Truth where his job involves distorting history to fit the government’s message. In the course of time, Winston meets a woman named Julia (Wilde) with whom he falls in love. Smith begins keeping a diary, an offense punishable by death, and his non-conformity becomes his ultimate downfall.
While most audiences might know the the novel, it’s one thing to read a scene and quite another to have it performed only a few feet from them. Aside from the vomiting and fainting, the actors have reported audience members yelling at them including one who shouted at Birney to stop during a particularly violent scene. Birney, still in character, shouted back. In other instances, they have shouted their approval or disdain of scenes in the play and some have even been known to call out for actors to “Resist!”
By opening night, directors Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke had imposed an age restriction on the production. No one under age 13 is allowed to attend the show. The directors also encourages audience members who cannot handle the gratuitous torture scenes to exit the theater.
“You can stay and watch or you can leave — that’s a perfectly fine reaction to watching someone be tortured,” Icke told The Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
Icke has a point. The place of art has always been to stir its audience, to draw upon their emotions and make them question their reality. 1984 is a perfect example for this time and place and its terror is real because it so closely mirrors some of our current situation. Regardless, it is certainly a production for the books.
For more information about the production, including videos, pictures and more, check out their official website!