In 1949, George Orwell published his book 1984, a look into a dystopian future in which the state, AKA Big Brother, monitors all human activity and squelches any dissent and individuality. At the time he was influenced by Soviet Stalinism and events in Europe post World War II.
Playwright Michael Gene Sullivan took that material and turned it into a two-act play, a play that is about to go onstage at the Alley Theatre.
In 1984, Alley Company member Shawn Hamilton plays Winston, a worker bee who gets in trouble when he begins writing a diary, an activity forbidden by the state. He is soon gathered up by the state and tortured about what he is up to and his relationship with Julia, the woman he loves.
In 2020, of course, we live in a society with little expectation of privacy. We go to the grocery store and receive unsolicited coupons based upon what we've just bought. To connect with friends and family we surrender valuable information on Facebook, even knowing our personal details are data mined and sent out into cybersphere. We agree to LinkedIn connections with people we don't even know, strangers looking for an advantage.
So yes, this is a very timely play. You have to wonder what Orwell would think of all this.
"I'm always happy when I have a play that's relevant, " Hamilton says. As the play opens, he says, "I’m found sleeping in a jail cell. My wrists are tied to electrical cables. I’m in a prison type jump suit. There is a belt around my neck connecting me to a central place on the floor. It’s not the comedy show of the season."
Although previous performances elsewhere of 1984 have kept it in small theaters, the Alley is going large with its version. The cast includes five other company members (Elizabeth Bunch, Chris Hutchison, David Rainey, Jay Sullivan and Todd Waite) most of whom are dressed in mid-20th Century dark suits (a sort of Men in Black look, Hamilton says).
"The set is a glass floor with 20 lights on the bottom topped by another panel of 20 lights above me and a giant block that looks like it's about to crush me," he says.
The hard part is just the play itself, Hamilton says. "They're trying to break him of his love for a woman that he met, to get him to betray her." A slight silver lining, he says, is that the people who are torturing Winston "have become infected by the idea of love, and the idea of freedom of thought. So the torturers are changed by their interrogation of Winston. But it's still a tough ending."
Winston works in the Ministry of Information office and is tasked with changing the past. If for instance the leader made a prediction that didn't come through, Winston rewrites news articles to reflect what really happened. "So the party leader is never wrong," Hamilton says. "If rations are cut you change the article so it seems like there were never any more."
Despite his fears, Winston hears about the revolution and decides he wants to to join the fight against all this control. But he's scared. "He gets courage from a woman he happens to meet that he originally hated and they have an affair," Hamilton says. "She is not willing to fight the party. She is not willing to join the Revolution. But her freedom comes in the moments when she is free in her body and being able to steal a few moments."
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"Winston wants to find the revolution. He’s a scared man; he’s a small, scared worker. But his mind is very sharp and he doesn’t believe the party line. In fact, because he's seen it. He's seen the past. It's his job."
Describing the play Hamilton says "It's really sort of a thriller, it's a kind of a horror story. Its a bit like a Jordan Peele movie. There's quite a few people who enjoy that sort of tingle of fear.
"I think it’s important. People have trouble believing that something could happen. Theater opens up the conept or the idea that this could be a possibility. A horrifying possibility. But if you don't think about it yes, it's more likely that it could happen.
Performances are scheduled for March 6-29 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $30-$91.