Broadway’s theatrical adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 is not holding back on bringing the book’s graphic descriptions of violence and torture to the stage. Squeamish viewers may want to steer clear of the production ― or at least bring a barf bag.
The play has led multiple audience members to vomit, pass out and, perhaps most strangely, get in fights as a result of its explicit horror, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
As most high school graduates know, 1984 takes place in a dystopian future where a totalitarian government ― called The Party and run by an elusive figure known as Big Brother ― controls the population by suppressing free speech, personal expression, individuality and sexuality. Brainwashing, propaganda and constant surveillance are employed to keep citizens in line.
Co-written and co-directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, the staged production stars Tom Sturridge as Winston Smith, the Ministry of Truth employee who disobeys Party rules by beginning an affair with a woman named Julia, played by Olivia Wilde.
The most disturbing scene in the production takes place when Winston is detained by Big Brother for his transgressions against The Party, which allows him to be tortured in Room 101 in an attempt to break his spirit of rebellion.
Winston finally crumbles when a cage of rats is strapped onto his head, poised to consume his face. But even before the rats enter the picture, Winston is brutally beaten inside a sterile white box as piercing strobe lights and the screaming sounds of a jackhammer escalate the intensity. When he is electrocuted, Winston faces the audience and accuses them of being complicit in his suffering.
“The torture scenes are visceral, ghastly, and hair-raisingly vivid,” Christopher Bonanos described in a critique for Vulture. “Blood is spattered and spit out; at least one beating about the face, occasioned by one awful command, ‘teeth,’ had a large part of the audience flinching.”
Since the production’s preview run in London earlier this year, audience members have been reacting strongly to the scenes. According to The Washington Post, “several audience members fainted and others vomited” in London. Police were called to break up a fight at one performance and, at others, “audience members yelled at the actors, begging them to stop,” the outlet notes.
Yet Icke and Macmillan had no intention of dialing the carnage back for the play’s Broadway debut. (Someone fainted during opening night.)
“We’re not trying to be willfully assaultive or exploitatively shock people,” Macmillan told The Hollywood Reporter, “but there’s nothing here or in the disturbing novel that isn’t happening right now, somewhere around the world: People are being detained without trial, tortured and executed. We can sanitize that and make people feel comforted, or we can simply present it without commentary and allow it to speak for itself.”
Icke added: “You can stay and watch or you can leave — that’s a perfectly fine reaction to watching someone be tortured. But if this show is the most upsetting part of anyone’s day, they’re not reading the news headlines. Things are much worse than a piece of theater getting under your skin a little bit.”
The play does come with a trigger warning and an age limit, warning viewers about the “flashing lights, strobe effects, loud noises, gunshots, smoking and graphic depictions of violence and torture” in store. Children under 14 years old are advised not to attend.
“1984” runs through Sept. 30 at the Hudson Theatre in New York. Bring your own barf bag.