“1984”: Who Could Ask for More? A.R.T. Brings Thoughtcrimes to Us, through March 6

1984 Cast Manuel Harlan

If you’re thinking of going to the American Repertory Theatre’s Loeb Drama Center to see “1984,” know this: It is the feel-good hit of February, flown over from England and fresh out of a fabulous fun factory!

Or, maybe it’s not.

Or, perhaps, if we’re using the parlance of “1984” newspeak – “Freedom is Slavery,” “War is Peace,” “Ignorance is Bliss” – it is.

This is a world created by George Orwell in 1949 about the way-distant and dystopian year of 1984. (Yes, irony abounds in that nowadays, does it not, looking back?) Just to give one example of that world’s convolutions, it means The Ministry of Love is all about torture – fingertips chopped, teeth extracted, rats in cages … you know the drill. If you’re a historically minded theatre type, you might recall the Grand Guignol days of old.

This “1984,” co-created and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, is clever and daring – daring in the sense of “I dare you to watch this.” No surprise, I suppose, if you’ve seen John Hurt in the 1984 “1984” movie, but somehow the shock value seems even more disturbing in the flesh, as it were.

Has “1984” ever left us? I read the novel in high school and dug the David Bowie song about the same time – “1984, who could ask for more,” he sang – on the “Diamond Dogs” album. Bowie had apparently wanted to stage a full-scale theatrical production of “1984” but Orwell’s estate balked.) Did Bowie’s music, made in 1974 – all of side 2 is spun out of Orwell – lead me to the book? I can’t recall, but it’s likely.

The year seemed so far away when Orwell wrote it – hell, far away when Bowie set it to music – and yet seems so prescient and of today, given the NSA, spin doctors “truth-telling,” cameras everywhere (on stop lights and retail outlets and wielded by every single person with a a smartphone), real-world language police on college campuses and on-line, our seemingly accepted state of near-perpetual warfare and even, I suppose, the idiotic “Big Brother” TV show, which turns it all into a voyeuristic goof.

We saw Hurt’s Winston get beaten up pretty badly, his psyche and his body, in the film “1984,” and here we see Matthew Spencer’s Winston endure similar insults. His attempts to find love with Julia (Hara Yannas) have not exactly worked out, given the parameters of the universe in which he must dwell. And the last 25 minutes of the play set in Room 101 are where it pivots from unrelentingly grim to horrifyingly visceral. (The aforementioned rats etc.) This does not happen in silence and, in fact, some of the amplified screeches and sonic booms rival Metallica/Motorhead/Swans for volume.  The directors assure us that any senses that can be assaulted are.

Kudos to the lighting, sound and video design people – respectively, Natasha Chivers, Tom Gibbons and Tim Reid, adept at both the shock and awe aspect and the quick, jarring transition between time-frames.

The “1984” we see it the A.R.T. is not ripped straight from the book proper. There’s a framing concept, somewhat confusing at the onset ‘til we find our footing. (I read later this was drawn from Orwell’s appendix to the text, “The Principles of Newspeak.”) We first see Winston Smith alone in writing in his diary, (the date of our show Feb. 17 and the year 1984 with a ? following it, projected onto the large video screen above him). There’s a big blast of sound and a blackout. When the lights flash back on, Winston seems to be part of a book club, six folks discussing Winston’s diary in the year 2050.  So, just as Orwell set “1984” 35 years ahead, creator-directors Icke and Macmillan have set parts of this play roughly 35 years ahead of present day. Clever bastards.

With this, we have to wonder about the intent of the Party. Is Winston an unreliable narrator? Or is they way it went down before the Party crashed? These are back-of-the-mind thoughts; primarily we’re fixated and transported into here and now of Winston’s bleak world.

Winston lives in Victory Mansions in London, works at Ministry of Truth, rewriting history to fit the pathology of the present rulers. There are three countries in this world, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, and they’re in perpetual state of war. The Party rules the roost and the Thought Police quash notions dissent before it even becomes dissent.

What we’re taking away here: Two things of immense value, what we think (and write) and who (and how) we love.

Winston has a forbidden affair with the subversive Julia – much of this shown on the video screens at the A.R.T. – and their affair is, shall we say, very much compromised by the world in which they live. Tim Reid’s video projections take us out of the looking-at-the-stage-moment and bring us into, dare I say, a more intimate bedroom setting where we see the characters faces and emotions as we would on film. Chloe Lamford’s design starts in on a fairly plain stage, but one that, at the end, has opened up to become a white-walled torture chamber. It is there where Winston is confronted by Big Brother lackey O’Brien (Tim Dutton) and his six anonymous, white-suited assistants. Just the depiction of the torture itself, with Guantanamo Bay lurking in our minds …

“1984” leaves you with something of dejected, hungover feeling. Both for what went on in that world and what is going on in our own. How much of this is fiction, how much could be factual? As theater-goers, we’ve been put through the wringer. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

At the A.R.T’s Loeb Drama Center through March 6. Tickets: $50-$65.

64 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-547-8300  www.americanrepertorytheater.org

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