The Review Reviews: “1984”

It is common for theatrical adaptations of books to be poor. But, it is rare that a theatrical adaptation of a book misses as much of the very point of the book as the Dartmouth Department of Theater’s production 1984. I will discuss these areas later, but I should be clear first that I found that the acting was skillful and effective and that the stage design was creative, original, and the main point of salvation for the production. I intend to criticize the other elements of 1984 without reflecting poorly on the hard work and talents of most of the people involved in the production, as I do believe that there were many commendable and enjoyable aspects.

The production, as a whole, was insecure and cautious—it made large, provocative statements, and then followed them up with awkward optimism that negated the power of the provocation. My criticism is not politically charged, as I won’t even get into whether or not I agree with the play’s not-so-subtle politics. Rather, regardless of my political leanings, I would rather a well-made, well-executed, and provocative production that I disagree with politically, than one that is confused and unintentionally internally inconsistent. These internal inconsistencies are complex, as they have some redeemable stylistic value, but ultimately, they detract from what I perceived as the purpose of this production. If the intended purpose of 1984 was in fact to criticize the current administration’s authoritarian proclivities, to provide a sort of guidebook to resistance, and to adapt an historically significant book into a play, then it realized its intentions, although with some notable missteps.

1984: The student production’s main advertising banner

1984: The student production’s main advertising banner

While the multi-media approach was innovative and, at times, effective, its execution led to a distracting inconsistency. The successful uses of the screen to play a relevant modern music video and to show the interrogation scene in Room 101 in greater detail were overshadowed by the bizarre and, frankly, annoying pre-recorded readings of a book about resistance methods. The narrator, who otherwise delivered a praiseworthy performance, appeared on the massive screen in the center of the stage and read different ways in which citizens can resist fascism. Not only did this addition to the production detract from the subtly informing strategy of the book 1984, but it also came across as itself fascistic, didactic, and condescending. The attempt to incorporate methods of resistance—or, in simpler terms, ways to fight Trump—was both poorly implemented and inherently contradictory to the styles that made Orwell’s book so effective.

Despite the strange polemic videos, the production was entertaining and creative. In order to accommodate the narration, the play begins in a radio studio that is producing a live reading of the book. In order to produce sound effects on-air, there were actors that made the noises themselves by, for example, walking upstairs repeatedly to mimic the sounds of the character Winston going up to his flat. The set of the radio show was also a particularly strong point for the whole production, as it was thoroughly fitted to the post-war period. But there was a slightly confusing plot point that occurred at the end of the radio show. The transition from the radio show to a high school drama class was undeveloped and unnecessarily abrupt. A quick synopsis—the radio show is ended by a power outage, someone says, “they’ve shut us down,” and then the scene ends. The power outage is only superficially explained, the development remains unexplored, and the audience is left thoroughly confused. While I thought this might have been a stylistic choice, it seems too sloppy to be given that excuse.

The strongest scene in the film is the one in which Winston and Julia are arrested. Through loud sirens, yelling officers, and bright, blinding white lights oscillating between the stage and the audience’s eyes, the audience is disoriented and shocked from their tranquil place as distant viewers to participants in the action of the performance. To heighten the drama, the police detain an actor planted in the audience, which pretty clearly symbolizes the position that Americans are in today when ICE arrests undocumented immigrants and police forces target people of color. The allegory is obvious—just as Winston and Julia are criminals for thinking out of step with the dominant ideology, undocumented immigrants and people of color are forced into the position of “criminal.” While the allegory lacks nuance, and is largely melodramatic, it is important to remember that this production is in fact theatrical, and thus can be expected to be dramatic. Regardless of the merit or defensibility of the allegory, this scene is powerful and effective—the audience does feel as though they are witnessing an abuse of power that they cannot stop, and, along with that, a penetrating guilt for not acting anyways.

Unfortunately, the production had a debilitating flaw right at the ending. An otherwise relatively strong performance concluded with an obnoxiously overt political rambling. The montage of Trump quotes culminating with “We will make America great again,” was unnecessarily polemic, but given the intentions of the play, it made logical sense to include it. The aggressive politicization can be excused as cumbersome but justified, but the successive song sequence was inexcusable. If the goal is to criticize, criticize. If the goal is to be optimistic, be optimistic. If the goal is to be both critical and somberly optimistic, then for the love of God don’t corrupt those intentions with a bizarre song sequence that drains the power out of the preceding scene—the most controversial and passionate part of the entire production. It was painful to watch the performance destroy itself by eviscerating the Trump-montage of its climactic power. Whoever made that decision ought to be embarrassed.

Since the production is no longer being shown, I cannot give a recommendation to see it. I can, however, commend the Dartmouth College students who performed, especially the actress who played Martin (her performance still gives me chills) and the actress who played Freddy (I couldn’t contain my laughter), and those who designed the aesthetically magnificent set. The production had its flaws, but overall, I do not regret seeing 1984 at all. If our theater department is striving only for “the audience felt like they did not waste their time,” however, then we have much bigger problems.   

  • Harry Chesterton