CAMBRIDGE — Even if you’ve never read “1984,” you’re probably familiar with the phrase “Big Brother is watching you.” George Orwell’s 1949 novel posited a dystopian future where the three world powers — Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia — are locked in a perpetual state of war, where the Party is the only reality, and where the Thought Police, whose telescreens are everywhere, use mind control to vaporize dissent before vaporizing the dissenter. Orwell’s year of doom has come and gone, and “Big Brother” has been domesticated into reality-TV fare, but the British theatrical adaptation “1984” reminds us that, in 2016, the novel is far from dated. And it comes to disturbing new life in the touring production that American Repertory Theater is hosting at the Loeb Drama Center.
The narrative focus of Orwell’s novel is Winston Smith, a 39-year-old Oceania Outer Party member with varicose veins and five false teeth. Winston lives at the decrepit Victory Mansions in London and works at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites the past to conform to the Party present. After fellow Outer Party member Julia, belying her Junior Anti-Sex League sash, slips him an “I love you” note, they embark on an affair in a hideaway above an antiques store, and they find an ally in Inner Party member O’Brien, a secret member of the anti-Party Brotherhood. Or so they think. O’Brien is really Thought Police; Winston and Julia, under torture, betray each other, and Winston learns to love Big Brother.
The theatrical “1984,” which premiered at the Nottingham Playhouse in 2013 before transferring to London’s West End, is mindful that in Internet-saturated 2016, concerns about privacy and surveillance are more relevant than ever. But the adaptation’s two creator-directors, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, are equally interested in the way that the novel’s appendix — a primer of the official Party language — treats Newspeak as a historical artifact, as if somehow the Party itself had got vaporized.
At the Loeb, “1984” opens with a tolling bell that conjures the churches of the novel’s “Oranges and Lemons” nursery rhyme. We see Winston in his dingy flat poring over his diary, a thoughtcrime if there ever was one. After a cacophonous blackout, the flat is populated by a book club whose members seem to be reading Winston’s diary in 2050 or later. Stranger still, Winston is among them. A booming voice asks him, “Where do you think you are?” It’s hard to tell whether Winston is flashing back to an imaginary past or flashing forward to an imaginary future. He doesn’t know where he is. Neither do we.
Yet over the next 100 minutes (there’s no intermission), Orwell’s story does get told. The script, when it departs from the novel, can be one-dimensional, and the relationship between Winston and Julia is missing its poetry, in part because Hara Yannas’s Julia is peculiarly joyless. Matthew Spencer is a reasonably schlumpy Winston, but Tim Dutton’s O’Brien substitutes bluster for Big Brother goodthink. The minor roles, many double-cast, are well executed: Simon Coates as sweaty Parsons, whose 7-year-old daughter snitches on him; Mandi Symonds as Mrs. Parsons and Winston’s mother; Stephen Fewell as the duplicitous antiques-shop owner; Ben Porter as Newspeak wordsmith Syme; Christopher Patrick Nolan as O’Brien’s servant and also the sinister figure who wheels the victory-gin trolley through the Ministry of Truth canteen; and Addison Oken (who’ll alternate with Faye Giordano) as various insufferable children.
Tim Reid’s video projections take us where Chloe Lamford’s set can’t, like Winston and Julia’s hideaway; they’re also effective in showing, for example, the process by which Winston unwrites the existence of a thoughtcriminal. The all-purpose set is a winner nonetheless, encompassing Winston’s flat, the book-club meeting room, the canteen, a train station, the antiques store, and O’Brien’s flat.
Eventually it transforms into what the novel calls “the place where there is no darkness” — the white cell where Winston is tortured. The last 25 minutes of “1984” are not for the faint of heart. What appear to be electric shocks delivered by hazmat-suited minions are accompanied by earsplitting thunder and blinding strobe lights. And following one blackout, what looks like blood and vomit stains the stage. Spencer is physically eloquent in this section, which renders the framing book-club conclusion all but moot. Orwell said it better in the novel, but sometimes seeing is believing.
Adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan from the novel by George Orwell. Directed by Icke and Macmillan. Presented by American Repertory Theater, in association with Headlong, Almeida Theatre, and Nottingham Playhouse. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through March 6. Tickets: $25-$75. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.