Theatre Pro Rata Enters Nightmare of 1984

Grant Henderson and John Middleton.

Grant Henderson and John Middleton.

You might think that, 30 years after the titular date, George Orwell's 1984 would be a quaint relic of a more paranoid past.

You would be wrong.

See also: Theatre Pro Rata takes "Twelfth Night" to the parks


Orwell's nightmarish vision of a world where an oppressive state controls not just its citizens' bodies, but also their minds and the very history around them, fits perfectly into our modern world. States like North Korea seem to use the book as a manual, while much of the "free" world has decided that we need constant surveillance to protect us from our enemies -- and ourselves.

Theatre Pro Rata jumps into 1984 with a recent adaptation that strips away much of the book and hones in on the final confrontation between Winston Smith and his interrogator.

"I don't think I have ever encountered something that is so true to the spirit of the original source material but is completely re-imagined into a new medium," says Pro Rata's Carin Bratlie, who also directs. "I am shocked at how prophetic Orwell was. Jim Jones took the book to Jonestown and used it."

Originally, the company was cool to the idea of bringing the show to stage. Their play-reading group gave an earlier adaptation a spin, but found the old-fashioned, linear approach to the material to not be particularly theatrical or engaging.

Someone in the group remembered that Michael Gene Sullivan had created a new version, which Tim Robbins's Actors Gang produced. They reconvened and started in on Sullivan's script.

"I read Winston in both versions. After we read the second, I wanted to do this show now," says Grant Henderson, who plays the thought criminal. "It is easily the most intense show, physically and mentally, I have done to date."

Henderson faces many challenges as Smith, not the least of which is that he is bound from beginning to end of the play. Scratch that. He is imprisoned from before the show, as he will be bound onstage as the audience arrives.

Opposing Henderson is John Middleton, who plays his interrogator. For most of the show, Middleton is just a voice.

"You have to make sure it is not boring and that you have some presence onstage," Middleton says.

While the play takes place only during Smith's interrogation from the last third of the book, his earlier experiences are brought to life by a quartet of actors, playing out scenes from his diary.

"Winston is drawn into the stories and plays himself. He gets overwhelmed and confused by the world," Bratlie says.

That doesn't mean Smith is powerless. "At the first encounter, he is already beaten down," Bratlie adds. "Winston is in a chess game between him and the interrogator. There is still some fight in him. It is almost involuntary. He knows that things are wrong in Oceania."

This battle of wits becomes the engine for the play. "My character sees this guy for who he is. He is helping him out and sometimes that means being a little rough," Middleton says. "By making it more personal, it makes it more interesting to watch."


1984 Friday-October 26 Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis $14-$41 For tickets and more information, call 612.234.7135 or visit online.