When Hollywood star and activist Tim Robbins first read Michael Gene Sullivan's stage version of George Orwell's 1984, he was skeptical of how true Sullivan had remained to the famous dystopian novel. He was interested in producing the play for his adventurous theater company, the L.A.-based Actors' Gang, but it didn't seem to square with his memories of Orwell. It was much more than a bleak piece of science fiction.
"Part of the experience of reading the play was: Wow, did the book say that? Is he making that up?" says Robbins, who directed the production of the play that comes to the Overture Center on April 20 and 21. "You remember the greatest hits: ‘Big Brother Is Watching,' telescreens. But what's shocking is the book's relevance. There are long, brilliant sections of warning in the book."
Sullivan distilled Orwell's grim vision of a totalitarian state into one long interrogation scene that stretches to two acts. Episodes in the life of the novel's beleaguered protagonist, the rebellious Winston Smith, are acted out by his accusers. As Sullivan puts it: "They help him to confess."
Sullivan resisted drawing specific parallels with the present in his version of 1984. "I wouldn't want it done with big pictures of Bush and Cheney on the wall. That would be too obvious," he says bluntly. "I wanted something that could be staged 20 years from now."
Of course, audiences are likely to think of Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and the Bush administration's sanctioning of torture as Winston's tormentors cleanse his mind of all independent thought. And Robbins accepts that the specific concerns of the present can't help but infiltrate the play.
"If we're willing to accept the idea of people being arrested, held without charge and tortured because we accept the idea that they are somehow involved in terrorism, if we look the other way and rationalize it...it's a slippery slope," he says. "How long is it before the files they've kept on peace activists are abused?"
Robbins is also outraged by the Bush administration's very Orwellian suspension of habeas corpus. "Habeas corpus is as old as the Magna Carta. It's stunning that we have a government that's complicit in its removal. Stunning."
Robbins decries the manipulation of facts during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. He worries about a country in which most of the press stays silent as individual freedoms are trampled, one by one. At the same time, he says we clearly don't live under the kind of authoritarian government Orwell lays out in 1984.
At least not yet. Robbins says that if artists and other Americans who value freedom of expression are silent, that nightmare vision of governmental oppression could quickly become reality.
"Certainly in the Soviet Union, we saw what happened to artists and people who would question the military state," he says. "That situation was worse than the situation we are in right now. But we're not far off. That is why it's important to do work like this: To make sure you recognize it when it shows up."