It should come as no big surprise that early in 2017, just weeks after the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, spiked monumentally — growing by 9,500 percent. The rise of right-wing authoritarian rule in nations around the world certainly seemed to have echoes here in North America, and Orwell’s dark vision of a future where the government dictated its own version of appropriate thought did not seem far-fetched.
British playwrights Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan were well positioned to ride the crest of this frightening wave with their 2013 no-holds-barred adaptation of Orwell’s tale. It debuted at suburban London’s Almeida Theatre, moved to the West End in 2014, and found its way to Broadway in 2017, where audiences were reportedly fainted and vomited at performances. And now it’s landed, squarely and frighteningly, at the intersection of 12th and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine in a fearsome production by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
It’s 101 minutes of terrifying performance by the classic theater company, with actor Justin McCombs (usually a highly amusing actor) turning in a stunning performance as Winston Smith, a functionary working in a totalitarian regime who rewrites and deletes history while secretly yearning to overthrow the government he works for, simply known as “The Party.” Smith has enough spine to pursue a secretive and forbidden love affair with Julia (Sara Clark), a co-worker, and believe they can carry out their romance beyond the all-knowing eyes of Big Brother.
Of course, they are wrong. Sucked into an apparent resistance movement (dubbed ‘The Brotherhood’) by avuncular O’Brien (Jeremy Dubin), eventually they’re harshly punished when his cruel reality comes to the fore. Anyone with an aversion to graphically portrayed torture should think twice about attending this production: It’s terrifyingly real, and everyone in the audience is made to feel wholly complicit in allowing Smith to be broken with horrendous pain and fiendish mental manipulation into betraying the woman he has come to love.
Cincy Shakes’ high-tech production, created with extensive video animation by multimedia designers Brave Berlin — the creative minds behind the BLINK light festival that dazzled thousands of visitors to Cincinnati’s urban core a year ago — is a magnificent demonstration of the capabilities of the company’s theater facility. A large overhead video screen provides an intimate view into Winston and Julia’s secret hideaway, vulnerably ripped open during a nightmare.
Justen N. Locke’s cold gray institutional design is the perfect palette for Andrew J. Hungerford’s lighting design and Brave Berlin’s projections of cityscapes, a woodland escape, a train station and more. Underscoring these elements, Jessica Pitcairn’s gray-scale costumes are sparked just once by Julia in a scarlet dress — plus some serious blood splattering. Douglas J. Borntrager’s sound design ramps up several anxiety-ridden scenes.
Brian Isaac Phillips’ taut direction gives 1984 a riveting forward momentum. Even before the lights go down, stern warnings are issued in the ominous tones of dominant power: “Readmission to the auditorium is NOT permitted once the performance has commenced.” A slip of paper inserted in the program stresses this message: “Comrades, this show does not have an intermission and patrons that exit will not be re-admitted. Please plan accordingly.” It’s not just Winston whose behavior is being monitored.
Icke’s and MacMillan’s script gets around the now-past date of 1984 by framing the story with a crowd of people late in the 21st century who have read a diary that might have been written by Winston — if he really existed. They find the details hard to imagine, but a seed of doubt is planted: Could the account of a regime supposedly overthrown possibly be one more manipulated tale to mask the continued existence of the Party?
1984 is not easy or entertaining theater; in fact, it’s a visceral gut punch, and audiences will surely leave the theater in a state of heightened anxiety. But as America approaches an important and perhaps decisive mid-term election, this production is a desperate notice that we must be on the alert to cope with a government that dismisses the rights of and abuses its citizens. In its 25th season, Cincy Shakes is producing some of the most compelling theater on any local stage.
1984, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Nov. 3. More info and tickets: cincyshakes.com.