A night at the theater generally involves dressing to the nines, perhaps dinner beforehand at a nearby restaurant and finally the play. Fainting, vomiting, screaming and fighting are not typically part of the experience.
Yet that’s exactly what audience members experienced at the new staging of George Orwell’s “1984,” which opened recently at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre after previews in London.
The play, co-written and co-directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, stars Tom Sturridge as Winston Smith and Olivia Wilde as his illegal love interest, Julia. Wilde is engaged to Jason Sudeikis, who is from Overland Park and was in town last weekend for the annual Big Slick fundraiser for the Cancer Center at Children’s Mercy.
Like the 1949 book on which it is based, the play presents a dystopian future run by Big Brother in which a shadowy government uses propaganda, brainwashing, fake news and torture to control its subjects.
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While many adaptations of the book downplayed some of its more graphic aspects, in particular its torture scenes, this staging does nothing of the sort.
In the story, Smith is detained by Big Brother and taken to Room 101, where he is heavily tortured until his anti-Big Brother spirit finally breaks.
During the Room 101 scenes in the play, the “main set is destroyed and transforms into a sterile white box, blasted with searing light,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. His torturers yell out ominous words like “fingertips” or teeth.” Then strobe lights flash maddeningly while the piercing, punishing sounds of a jackhammer fills the room.
“Blood is spattered and spit out; at least one beating about the face,” wrote Vulture’s Christopher Bonanos, who called these scenes, “visceral, ghastly, and hair-raisingly vivid.”
In the play, as the character Smith bleeds heavily and is later electrocuted, he stares into the eyes of individual audience members and yells that they’re “complicit.”
During these scenes in London, several audience members fainted and others vomited. Police were called to break up a fight after one staging. At others, audience members yelled at the actors, begging them to stop.
One audience member reportedly fainted at the Broadway debut June 22.
That isn’t to say audiences haven’t been cautioned.
The play comes with the following warning and age restriction: “This production contains flashing lights, strobe effects, loud noises, gunshots, smoking, and graphic depictions of violence and torture. It is not suitable for children under 14.” Security guards, meanwhile, are posted around the Hudson Theater to monitor audience reactions.
New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote that the stage was “lighted to chill” and the production included “nerve-shredding sound effects.”
“Though I usually don’t provide trigger warnings in my reviews, I feel obliged to do so here,” Brantley wrote. “The interrogations that Winston undergoes in the play’s second half are graphic enough to verge on torture porn.”
Rooney mirrored these thoughts, also employing the term “torture porn” to describe the play, which he called a “grim, sphincter-clenching sit.”
“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,” Macmillan told the Hollywood Reporter. “We can sanitize that and make people feel comforted, or we can simply present it without commentary and allow it to speak for itself.”
“You can stay and watch or you can leave — that’s a perfectly fine reaction to watching someone be tortured,” Icke added. “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.”
Wilde agreed, adding that “this experience is unique, bold and immersive. It allows you to empathize in a visceral way, and that means making the audience physically and emotionally uncomfortable.” In a recent Instagram post from backstage showing makeup artist Nicole Bridgeford at work, Wilde wrote, “For such a disturbing play, there’s an awful lot of smiling backstage. Here’s superhuman @nicolebridgeford turning Tom (Sturridge) into Winston.”
The stars, meanwhile, haven’t fared much better than their audiences. Though it’s unclear how, Wilde and Sturridge both reportedly broke bones on set — the tailbone for Wilde and the nose for Sturridge. Wilde also dislocated her rib and split her lip during previews, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
“I broke his nose, but it was in retaliation because he broke my coccyx,” Wilde said on the “Today” show.
And this was in previews. The directors, though, refused to change a thing for its Broadway debut.
The play’s timing proved impeccable, opening to the world just months after Orwell’s politically charged novel became the best-selling book on Amazon.com in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president. Many pointed to parallels between the novel’s plot and the current political climate.
The play was first staged internationally in 2013, but until the election, talk of it reaching Broadway was just that: talk.
“I think the feeling was, we have to do it now,” Macmillan told the New York Times. “If we don’t, we’ll miss our chance.”
“1984” isn’t the first play to recently become part of the national conversation thanks to its shocking content.
Earlier this month, a New York production of “Julius Caesar,” starring Trump look-alike Gregg Henry in the titular role, sparked national debate. In the play, Caesar is assassinated by his fellow statesmen. Given this Caesar’s likeness to the president of the United States, many found the production in poor taste.
Several sponsors, including Delta and Bank of America, pulled their funding for the play. Nevertheless, it was arguably the most discussed play since “Hamilton.”