Big Brother Is Watching: 1984 Comes to the Nation’s Capital
March 2, 2016 @ 12:00am
Enter the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984 this spring, on Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre stage from March 11 to April 10. This progressive stage adaptation of the author’s famous science fiction novel is making its debut in the U.S. with the District as its third stop, after several runs in the United Kingdom since 2013.
Created and directed by U.K. natives Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, 1984 was produced by theater ensemble Headlong, with help from the Almeida Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse, before its international run. The 100-minute production – with no intermission – is an intense, multisensory experience set in post-war superstate Oceania, where three classes (the elite Inner Party, middle class Outer Party and working class proles) live under the ever-present, tyrannical Big Brother.
Outer Party member Winston Smith, who makes his living rewriting news articles to run parallel with the party’s current position, undergoes a radical transformation as he falls in love with the rebellious Julia. The themes of government surveillance, information manipulation and global warfare all ring true today, and the play’s leads are enthralled by the opportunity to bring 1984 to the nation’s capital.
“[The play] feels particularly resonant with the current political climate in America and the upcoming election,” says actress Hara Yannas, who is back in the U.S. for the first time since childhood. “I think it stirs something up in people.”
Yannas, who plays Julia and has been with the production off and on since 2013, describes 1984 as a feast for the ears and the eyes. Without giving too much away, she says the multimedia elements of the play – including live camerawork – are used to aid in the storytelling rather than just as something cool to do onstage.
She credits 29-year-old Icke with creating a vision for how to tell a story onstage that’s as enticing as watching a film with special effects, or playing a video game. Matthew Spencer, who plays Winston, says the multimedia aspects can evoke very real, truthful emotions for the actors.
“Hara and I have moments in scenes where we’re being filmed, and it’s really interesting being in a theater but having a camera right there in your face,” he says.
Spencer says he and Yannas have built a fantastic rapport, and the actor appreciates having a secret giggle or two with his leading lady mid-scene as a brief reprieve from the intensity of being onstage for the entire play.
“Obviously there’s a script, which is set, but within that there’s a lot of room for us to discover and play around,” he says. “It’s not set and rigid.”
Both actors feed off of the immediate, somewhat visceral feedback from audiences, allowing them to gauge how people are impacted by the play and its subject matter. Yannas loves the energy of younger audiences, who she says don’t censor themselves the way a more mature audience might by being “quite polite and quiet, and just listening and behaving themselves.”
Spencer notes that the play strikes a chord with younger audiences because “we’re a bit naughty with the rules,” but believes that anyone, regardless of age, will find the play relevant.
“In a lot of ways,  takes the rules of what theatre should be, what a play should be, and kind of throws them out the window,” he says. “It gets audiences to think and ask questions about what they’re watching, why they’re watching it, and how they use media.”
Don’t miss 1984 at Lansburgh Theatre from March 11 to April 10, with tickets starting at $44. Theatergoers 35 and under can catch Young Prose Nights (YPN) on Friday, March 25 and Wednesday, April 6. YPN tickets are $25 and include a complimentary libation and an invite to a pre- or post-performance party.
LANSBURGH THEATRE: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org