1984 was never going to have a breezy rom-com vibe on Broadway. But the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian classic, which opened late last week in New York, is generating queasy responses from some audience members.
Some of them have been throwing up, fainting and screaming at the play’s extreme torture scenes, perpetrated by the totalitarian regime dedicated to suppressing critical dissent.
A scene in the show where rebel Winston Smith (played by Tom Sturridge) is terrorized with a wire cage that contains two large rats is causing special distress.
Security guards are now positioned throughout the entire Hudson Theatre, and just before opening night, the production began barring anyone under 13 years old from attending.
Star Olivia Wilde, who plays Winston’s fellow resistance member Julia, told Heat Street at the opening: “It  contains some anxiety and if people are already on edge, it intensifies that. This is such a rare immersive experience for the audience that it’s causing this kind of reaction.”
She added: “We’re hopefully allowing people to contextualize everything that they’re experiencing every day. There’s a lot of rage, fear and confusion, and sometimes art is the way we find perspective during these times. It feels intense because I know the audience is consuming it from a very specific state of mind.”
1984 directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan are well-prepared for the reaction, having previously staged the play multiple times in London. Macmillan said: “There has always been an extreme audience reaction to the more extreme bit of the show. And there have always been people who have a very strong panicked, fainting reaction to it in the same way there would be on a good rollercoaster ride.
“There are some people who love the thrill of it and people who for whom it’s a bit much.”
Wilde referred to Trump as an “imbecile,” and added, “Orwell repeated in the book we should never have trusted the Party, and I believe that many people who voted for Trump are feeling that now and it’s tragic and unfair to them.”
But the directors added that despite the Trump Presidency being the catalyst for the show coming to Broadway and the President and Sean Spicer being used in adverts, they didn’t want 1984 to be perceived as being a leading component of the resistance.
Icke said: “It’s a book that has been claimed by the left and the right and they’re both right. Our job is not to let our own political ideology get in the way of Orwell.
“It’s a classic not because it’s an attack on a potential futuristic socialist government and not because it’s an attack on a right-wing totalitarian stripping away of rights. It’s about that doublethink of carrying contradictory thoughts simultaneously.”
He added: “On a day-to-day basis over here it’s perennially relevant. When we first started in London it [the comparisons] was Wikileaks, Snowden. Only a few hours before our first preview, a car in Times Square drove through pedestrians and killed someone and injured 22 people.
“Since then we’ve had the lone wolf terrorist attacks in England, and even with Trump pulling out of Paris accords and the “Covfefe” Tweets, it feels as though he is speaking directly to the audience on what is happening today.”
But Icke added by way of balancing the 1984-reality comparisons that, “President Obama promised to close Guantanamo before he got elected and Guantanamo is still open. So it depends whose side you’re on. One of the problems with binary politics is everybody thinks their side is the one that should win.”
British star Tom Sturridge said: “The political systems everywhere seem totally insane. When I was in England, I was going, ‘What’s going on in America?’ Now I’m here going, ‘What the hell is going on at home?’ “