When literary classics are adapted for the stage with kid gloves, Masterpiece Tedium is usually the result.
The reason is fairly straightforward. Art that makes a lasting impression must possess a radical spirit of some kind, and nothing tames radicalism quite like respect.
The bracing British production of "1984" that opened at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Wednesday reinvigorates Orwell's dystopian tale not by playing up the contemporary resonances (which every age can claim) but by never letting you forget that you're sitting in a theater.
This multimedia stage version, a collaboration of Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and the Almeida Theatre that became a hit in London's West End, isn't scared of taking risks with a book that for many was required reading, perhaps even the subject of a term paper.
The production, adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, eradicates any lingering classroom aroma with an ominously propulsive sound design (by Tom Gibbons), disorienting strobe lighting effects (by Natasha Chivers) and video (by Tim Reid) that both expands the playing area and reminds us that Big Brother is always watching.
No one will accuse this staging of subtlety. But the harrowing story of Winston Smith (Matthew Spencer), a would-be rebel toiling as a clerk at the Ministry of Truth, is born anew with startling force.
The production begins with Winston about to commit the nearly unthinkable act of writing down his secret thoughts in his newly purchased diary. Before setting pen to paper, he contemplates the consequences of this criminal deed in a totalitarian state that wants to control not just actions but thoughts as well. Indeed, the greatest offense is that convenient catchall known as "thoughtcrime," patrolled by the ubiquitous Thought Police and punishable by sometimes quick, sometimes agonizing, but either way inescapable, death.
Around this fateful opening, the creators invent a postmodern frame, inspired in part by the Orwell appendix in which the principles of Newspeak, the heavily redacted language of Oceania, are elucidated. The characters that surround Winston as he starts writing are simultaneously figures from his justifiably paranoid mind and denizens of some future who are trying to decode his story. They act out background vignettes from his current life and offer commentary on the conundrum of his identity.
This can get a bit heavy-handed, especially when these figures momentarily pause to turn off their cellphones, with one intoning the line, "Every age sees itself reflected." This is unnecessarily repeated, but fortunately such didactic intrusions are kept to a minimum.
It struck me as odd that Winston, aware that's he under constant surveillance, would be so expressive with his anxiety and fear. Orwell goes to great lengths in the book to describe the way Winston's neutral façade has become second nature to him, a protection against detection of subversive feelings and unorthodox beliefs.
But a novel grants us more direct access to the hidden life of a protagonist than the stage. And Icke and Macmillan, who are as bold in their textual rearrangements as they are in their theatrical approach, have opted to externalize Winston's Kafkaesque state of mind.
Spencer's portrayal is of a piece with the tense scenic atmosphere. Suspicion and terror course though his body with every interaction at his home and office. He jolts and jumps as though he were already being subjected to the electric shocks that await those harboring seditious daydreams.
But it was in moments of silence and stillness that Spencer's Winston most eloquently convinced me of the personal toll of such a nightmarish (yet all too real) political system, in which the slogans "War Is Peace," "Freedom Is Slavery" and "Ignorance Is Strength" are regularly inculcated. The look of hunger in his eyes suggests a longing not for rationed chocolate or even outlawed sex but for the freedom that in a forgotten era was once considered an inalienable right of every human being.
The romance between Winston and Julia (Hara Yannas), a co-worker he initially suspects is a covert member of the Thought Police, blooms like an orphan flower in a bombed-out sidewalk of a housing project. Their love scenes are viewed on a screen positioned at the upper back of a set by designer Chloe Lamford that resembles an archive room but serves as an office canteen as well as other menacingly bleak and dingy locales.
Stealing a fugitive hour in bed together, Winston and Julia are all too aware that it's only a matter of time before their furtive love nest is invaded by the authorities. Best not to give too much away (even works as popular as "1984" have first-timers), but the portrait of O'Brien (Tim Dutton), a leader in the Inner Party whom Winston believes may be sympathetic to the resistance, is pulled off with an exhilarating slipperiness.
In a world in which two plus two is said to no longer equal four, reality is nearly impossible to pin down. This production, exhibiting remarkable concentration when it's needed most, allows us to viscerally experience the brutality of such a regime. The staging is clamorous, but when the performers speak you may find yourself leaning in to hear them — as much an issue of acoustic levels and accents as an illustration of what gets lost in the autocratic sturm und drang: the precious and ever-vulnerable individual human voice.
Orwell is sadly never out of date. But few stage adaptations are capable of translating so effectively the stark horror of this cautionary classic. The Actors' Gang 2006 version of "1984" may have done a better job of distilling the author's political thought. But the agitated theatrical imagination of this British import brings the tale shockingly to life onstage.
Where: The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Feb. 6.
Info: (310) 434-3200, www.thebroadstage.com