Previews of the Williamston Theatre’s newest production last week ended in some oddly quiet audience talkbacks.
Granted, torture by rats is never much of a conversation starter, but director Tony Caselli sensed an unusual vibe after four advance looks at Michael Gene Sullivan’s taut stage adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984,” which opens Friday.
Many audience members preferred to approach Caselli one on one after the show.
One man told him the play was “a little too much like real life” to suit him. A woman told him “we’re not as aware as we think we are.” Another woman told him she couldn’t wait to go out and vote.
Every calendar can be used again in 28 years. “1984” keeps a more erratic schedule, but it always comes back around.
On Tuesday, Lansing’s Capital City Film Festival will open with a special screening of Michael Radford’s 1984 film version, with John Hurt as Winston, the transgressive free thinker, and Richard Burton as O’Brien, his torturer. The screening is a dual fundraiser for Creative Many, an arts advocacy organization, and Lansing’s Refugee Development Center.
In Orwell’s novel, April 4 was the date Winston began keeping a forbidden diary. Over 150 indie cinemas in 43 states are showing the film that day, with more screens added each day.
With the Capital City Film festival already set for April 5-9, festival director Dominic Cochran thought it would be a natural fit. To add to the convergence, Hurt died Jan. 25 of this year.
“His quiet and powerful performance is the highlight of the film for me,” Cochran said.
The film was Burton’s last and is dedicated to him. Cameras rolled from April to September of 1984, in London — “the same place and time envisioned by the author,” declares a title card at the end of the film.
The prospect of perpetual war against an amorphous enemy caused the last big spike of interest in “1984” in the early 2000s following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Sales of the book spiked again in 2013, during President Obama’s second term, in the wake of the NSA’s “Big Brother”-esque phone surveillance scandal.
What jumped out in 2017 for preview audiences in Williamston is the novel’s “posttruth” manipulation of language, facts and memory.
“People can’t get over the direct connection to the world of ‘alternative facts,’” Caselli said.
“1984” hit the top of Amazon’s bestseller list when Trump administration spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” in the wrangle over the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. The exchange reminded many of Orwell’s “newspeak,” a language designed to limit freedom of thought and political opposition.
It’s not hard to imagine Winston, grubbing away in his office at the Ministry of Truth, tossing pictures of the half-empty National Mall on Inauguration Day down the “memory hole” and substituting photos of historically huge crowds.
Despite the shocks of recognition for modern audiences, “1984” is still rooted in the world of 1949. The food rationing and sexual repression smack more of World War II Britain than 21st-century America. (It’s hard to imagine a Trump dictatorship trying to eliminate orgasms.)
By Orwell’s own account, the model for “1984” was the 1930s Soviet Union, with its mass terror, ubiquitous images of Joseph Stalin and constant erasing and revision of history.
Orwell also predicted the ubiquity of “telescreens,” but the grim, North Koreastyle surveillance state of “1984” looks almost quaint now.
“What Orwell didn’t predict was that we’d provide the cameras ourselves, and our biggest fear is to not be watched,” Caselli said.
Caselli said he’d love to take credit for being prescient, but he had been looking for a suitable adaptation of “1984” for two years.
When he chose the play a year ago, Caselli saw its relevance mainly as a response to the vitriol souring the national discourse as 12 Republican candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders vied for president, comparing everything from energy level to penis size.
At last week’s previews in Williamston, the parts of the play where party members angrily denounce the enemies of the state, especially “terrorist” opposition leader Goldstein, conjured up visions of Trump rallies, with their heckling of penned-up reporters and chants of “lock her up.”
“Reminding people that things like humanity, empathy and individuality are worth maintaining seemed worthwhile,” Caselli said.
Caselli rejected earlier adaptations as either too “talky” or too large in scale and settled on a brisk, focused version by actordirector Michael Gene Sullivan, first performed in 2006 by the Actors Gang and directed by Tim Robbins.
Sullivan’s script still has one foot in the Bush years, as when a party member talks about “satellite photos of chemical weapons, secret nuclear weapons factories.”
Sullivan wrote in his blog that he adapted Orwell’s novel in reaction to the “surveillance/torture state” initiated after 9/11 by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“I thought of the play as a warning, a signpost, pointing to where our country could go if we were not vigilant,” Sullivan wrote a January 2017 post. “Well, we went there.”
Whether we’re “there” or not will doubtless be the topic of many post-show discussions. It’s not a critical slam to suggest that leaving the theater and arguing in the open air is the best part of “1984.”
“We can go outside, go to the bar, laugh, be with the people we love,” Caselli said. “It inspires you to think about those things rather than take them for granted.”
“1984” Williamston Theatre Preview performances: 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 29 and Thursday, March 30 $15 Opening night: 8 p.m. Friday, March 31 $30
April 1-23: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday $25 Thursday/$30 Friday and Saturday evenings/$27 matinees/$10 students/$2 discount for seniors and military Williamston Theatre 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston (517) 655-7469, williamstontheatre.org “1984” film screening Capital City Film Festival 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 4 $10 Lansing Public Media Center 2500 S. Washington Ave., Lansing capitalcityfilmfest.com