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Big Brother at center stage in ‘1984’ at ART

Matthew Spencer plays Winston in “1984.”
Matthew Spencer plays Winston in “1984.”Manuel Harlan

A 2013 British poll found that George Orwell’s “1984” was the book respondents most frequently cited as one they had falsely claimed to have read.

It’s not entirely facile to observe that there’s something Orwellian about how the 1949 novel has seeped into popular consciousness. Elements of the vocabulary and phraseology Orwell presented there — doublethink, “2+2=5,” Thought Police, “War is Peace,” and, of course, Big Brother — are routinely cited by those possessing only the merest familiarity with their intended context.

“This is a book that’s been claimed by people on the right wing as a book that supports their own way of seeing the world, and it’s been claimed by people on the left,” says British playwright Duncan Macmillan. “Like all masterpieces, it manages to be far more interesting and complete and truthful than being simply one thing or another.”

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In the immensely popular adaptation of the book the playwright created with director Robert Icke, the goal was to represent onstage, in three dimensions, the intensely subjective nature of Orwell’s writing. Macmillan and Icke are credited as co-adapters and co-directors of the play, which continues its world tour with a run at the American Repertory Theater beginning on Sunday.

“1984,” of course, takes place in a (not-so) futuristic London where the public is under constant surveillance and expected to offer unblinking fealty to the all-powerful Big Brother, in thoughts as well as deeds. It’s told from the perspective of would-be dissident Winston Smith, a government employee in the Ministry of Truth, where documents from the past are constantly being suppressed or amended to represent the political orthodoxy of the moment. Winston is working on a stilted revision of the English language called Newspeak, the better to facilitate doublethink, which Orwell describes in part as holding “simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.”

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Though the novel is much concerned with Winston’s memories and thought processes, Macmillan and Icke say the theater is an ideal medium for adaptation.

“Audiences are quite naturally, without even trying, participating in an act of group doublethink,” Macmillan, 36, says. “We’re watching people onstage make decisions and go through pain and pleasure and life-changing conditions, but we know the people we’re watching aren’t really the people we’re watching. We’re watching actors on a stage.”

The densely packed one-act features a busy sound design, projection, and live video, and opens with the conceit of an apparent book group meeting to discuss an unspecified text. Crucially, the adaptation is informed by Orwell’s oft-skipped postscript to the book, a tract written in academic language and presented as an appendix called “The Principles of Newspeak.”

Macmillan and Icke see this appendix as crucial to understanding the novel. Importantly, it references Winston, though readers were told earlier that all records of him had been wiped out. It refers to the ruling political party in the past tense. In a detail missed by most readers, there’s a suggestion that the appendix was written (in the world of the novel) in 2050 or later. And its very existence suggests that Winston’s whole story was filtered through an editor.

“The novel itself becomes an untrustworthy artifact. You’re not sure what era it’s from. You don’t know who’s edited it. It turns out that right from when you started reading the novel, somebody else is reading it with you,” says Icke, 29, who like Macmillan is speaking on the phone from England. “Given the novel’s obsession with documents and the fact you can’t trust them, it’s rather smart to end the novel with a document that throws into a different light everything that you’ve just read so far.”

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In the minds of its adapters, this staging leaves open the question of whether what’s happening is “real,” in an objective sense. Is Winston imagining the events? Are the people around him imagining him? And just what year is it, anyway?

This “1984,” developed by the UK touring company Headlong in 2013, has played all over Britain, including two separate runs on the West End. An engagement in Santa Monica, Calif., immediately preceding the Cambridge run was its first in the United States.

Much of the press coverage has centered on what the work has to say about contemporary issues involving privacy and surveillance. Icke hopes the audience is confronted with even broader questions.

“Yeah, it’s about Internet surveillance and who reads your e-mail, sure. But it’s also more brutally about the fact that you don’t know that your reality is real. How do you know the difference between the things you thought you dreamed and the things you remember? We all live in universes of our own making, fundamentally. It’s the anxiety of being completely alone,” he says, “no one else can really share your experience.”

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Matthew Spencer, who plays Winston, sounds a similar note.

“For me it’s the stuff about the language,” he says. “You can hear exactly the same piece of news from two different sources and just through the language that is used, get two completely different truths of what’s going on.”

But is Big Brother really watching, here in 2016?

No spoilers.

1984

By George Orwell. Adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. Presented by American Repertory Theater in association with Headlong, Almeida Theatre, and Nottingham Playhouse. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Feb. 14-March 6. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org


Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.