New York’s Broadway is not normally known for political theatre – blockbuster musicals will do – but, it seems, the times are rapidly a-changing. On Thursday, the Great White Way welcomed a brutal adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring Tom Sturridge and Olivia Wilde, a show that debuted in London three years ago.
Steps away, the political provocateur Michael Moore will soon open The Terms of My Surrender, a performance that poses the question emblazoned on posters outside: “Can a Broadway show bring down a sitting president?” and promises to be a humorous tour-de-force from a documentarian and commentator who sagely predicted the Trump presidency.
Last week, after Democrats repeated their November experience by failing to take a congressional seat in Georgia despite a surfeit of money and support, Moore turned his barrels on the demoralised party, blasting it for having “no message, no plan, no leaders”.
But Democrats are unlikely to be the principal focus of Moore’s enmity. He told the New York Times the show will be “a humorous play about a country that’s just elected a madman – I mean, there’s really no other way to put it”.
“There is going to be some rabble-rousing,” he added, and it would probably include taking audiences on post-show walkabouts, presumably over to nearby Trump Tower.
The rise of political theatre, or theatre taking on the political divisiveness of this era, has become more pronounced in the aftermath of Trump’s win. First came the cast of Hamilton halting a performance to give the vice-president-elect Mike Pence a warm welcome and a stern reminder that the hit musical is in some measure about racial equality.
Then earlier this month two performances of Julius Caesar at the respected Public Theatre that portrayed the title character as President Trump were interrupted by rightwing protesters. One shouted that theatre-goers were “Nazis”, another that “Liberal hate kills!” Donald Trump Jr joined the fracas, criticising the production for encouraging violence against conservative politicians in the wake of a Bernie Sanders supporter seriously wounding Republican majority whip Steve Scalise with an assault rifle at baseball practice.
That the bitter political atmosphere has found its way on to Broadway is not surprising, said the respected British producer Sir Colin Callender at the opening of 1984 at the Hudson Theatre.
“When the social and political landscape is as vivid and turbulent as it currently is, all good drama and storytelling takes on a new resonance. The context informs the story, and the story responds to the context. It’s a two-way street.”
Callender continued: “It’s a very exciting proposition for theatre that it can suddenly become really relevant again. 1984, Julius Caesar or Hamilton – they’ve all taken new relevance since the election of Donald Trump. It’s exciting that an art form as old as the theatre can continue to be a stimulus for debate.” The producer, who is bringing London’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child production to New York later this year, pointed out that the political turbulence in the US has already produced some startling shows, including Sweat, a Pulitzer-prize-winning play that portrays a meeting between a parole officer and two ex-convicts, and three women factory workers.
“It’s interesting across the board to see how art is reflecting the real world, much as Angels in America grew out of the Reagan era, and the early years of Channel 4 film grew out of the Maggie Thatcher era. Moments like this do indeed bring the artist’s role into sharp focus.”
Tom Sturridge, who plays Winston Smith in Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s 1984 production, wanted it known that nothing in the production had been manipulated to make it more relevant or prescient.
“This is not dressing someone up as Trump in Julius Caesar or doing a one-man show,” Sturridge told the Observer. “The text is 95% taken from the novel – this is how Orwell happened to stumble on the world we live in now. The world gets in the blood of the audience and they see things it is impossible to not see.” The actor said he was struck by how Orwell’s phrase “words matter” was precisely echoed in former FBI director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate intelligence committee. “I could feel the audience gasp that what they saw on CNN is now, somehow, refracted back through time to the mind of George Orwell in 1949 and put back on Broadway.”
New York acting agent Tim Stone, who had four clients in the Julius Caesar production, said he’d seen a gradual increase in political theatre.
“The country wants to make a statement about Trump, and in the arts you have that opportunity without necessarily being criticised,” he pointed out. Stone expressed disappointment that the play’s corporate sponsors, including American Express, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America, had pulled out.
“I felt they were scared that Trump would suddenly come down on them. Everybody in the production was really disappointed. It was pathetic really.”
It remains to be seen how much political content Broadway audiences will accept. Callender argues that times have changed and audiences are demanding more than another formulaic musical. “This is a great moment for theatre, and we are obliged to take risks. No, we have a responsibility to take risks.”
In his review of 1984, the New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote: “In periods when the world and its inhabitants seem too vicious to bear, some people find themselves drawn magnetically to what might be called feel-bad entertainment.”
But he also shared his doubts about the performance, arguing that “this deliberately disorientating 1984 would seem to be trafficking in the same kind of titillating violence with which Big Brother keeps his populace cowed and entertained.”