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Teen Critic: 1984

The Teen Critic Program at Shakespeare Theatre Company allows high school students interested in theatre, journalism and/or critical writing the opportunity to learn how to view productions with a critical eye and write a savvy, persuasive theatre review. The Teen Critics attend each production, receive a press packet, preferred press seating and have the opportunity to meet with professional theatre critics from local newspapers before writing their own reviews.

Over the season you’ll have the chance to get to know the Teen Critics through whole and excerpted reviews. Below are selections from their reviews for 1984. For these pieces, the students were asked to write an 800-word review targeted at their peers.

Emma Skinner, 9th Grade, George C. Marshall High School


Photos by Ben Gibb. Provided by Headlong.

I happen to have read 1984 several times, and it didn’t escape my notice that the script relies heavily on the book. Many of the lines, and often whole conversations, complete with staging and actions, are exactly how they appear within the book. The few elements that are changed add a fresh perspective on the storyline for people like me who are familiar with 1984 prior to the show. One of the most iconic lines of 1984 (the four words which end the book) are altered and simplified, increasing their emotional punch even more. At the beginning and end of the play, future citizens of the world appear, speculating on the Party, on Winston and on what his diary really means. But by staying so close to the book’s sequence of events, Headlong has made their play the best it can be. 1984 is such a radical piece of literature, even today, that it doesn’t need to be reimagined or rethought for stage. It just needs to be told honestly, in a brave manner, and Headlong succeeds with this. Their few changes and additions are thought-provoking from person to person.

Missy Hamblet, 12th Grade, Homeschool


Photos by Ben Gibb. Provided by Headlong.

Featuring Matthew Spencer as the main character Winston Smith, the play follows his life as a citizen in an all-seeing and corrupt oligarchic government. Orbited simultaneously by fellow citizens and a group of scholars from the future (taken from 1984’s less-known appendix, an accompaniment being written from 2050 by said scholars), Winston attempts to steer himself towards an elite conspiracy group, the Brotherhood. The undercurrent of fear comes from Winston’s position as a government employee—at the same time that he is questioning and criticizing.

There are three primary threads to the tale: Winston’s notebook, the relationship between Winston and Julia and the Brotherhood. In a brilliant production choice, a large portion of the show is performed behind the stage, in a tiny makeshift apartment that serves as a meeting place for Winston and Julia. The audience experiences these scenes by watching them being projected onto the blank wall above the set, as if we are spies hidden behind the keyhole. The choice to hide part of the play in plain sight allows the audience a clandestine glimpse into the paranoid intimacy between Winston and Julia.

Sophia Vassallo, 11th Grade, T.C. Williams High School


Photos by Ben Gibb. Provided by Headlong.

What the production lacked in physical set, it made up for in the integration of multimedia and special effects. There was a massive video screen above the stage which allowed the audience a peek into Winston’s diary and events that transpired off stage. Video designer Tim Reid deserves credit for keeping a modern audience enthralled by integrating theatre with modern media. My praise also goes out to Sound Designer Tom Gibbons and Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers for using smoke, flashing lights and loud sound to make transitions a little more interesting. I thought that the blinding lights and blaring sirens contrasted nicely with the frequent, staunch silences, but these effects are not for everyone.

Raka Banerjee, 9th Grade, Washington High School

The directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan made the choice of adding an extra character to the play, the audience. As an audience member I felt that the choice put us in an awkward position. I felt that we were seen as Big Brother.”At one point during the torture in Room 101, O’Brien mentioned to Winston to tell us what he thought of the government and that everyone was listening. At this moment in the show, the lights turned on in the theater and onto the audience. During this scene it was hard for me not to run out of my seat and help Winston. Another time I felt like the audience was a character was each time Winston and Julia were in their room. They thought that there were no cameras but as an audience member, I knew that there were and that I was watching them. In addition to seeing them in their bedroom and being seen as Big Brother, when Winston and Julia were sitting down with O’Brien, and he said there was no one watching and there were no cameras on, I felt guilty thinking that we were causing Winston and Julia all their pain because we were always watching them.

Lydia Gompper, 11th Grade, George Mason High School


Photos by Ben Gibb. Provided by Headlong.

Hara Yannas, meanwhile, was wonderfully striking as Winston’s similarly rebellious lover, Julia. She had a manic appeal that drew in not only Winston, but the audience as well. She impressed both as the cold, loyal party member she pretended to be and as her character’s true self—a free-thinking nonconformist. This critic fell utterly in love with Yannas and her character from the moment she threw a handful of papers into the air and screamed, “Down with Big Brother!”

Headlong’s production of 1984 was a true psychological thriller, horrifying the audience not only with its depiction of physical gore but also with the disgusting oppression of the characters’ freedoms—even the freedom to think. Giving a not-so-subtle nod to NSA surveillance (even mentioning it in the playbill), this production brings personal freedoms and rights—the right to individual thought, the right to privacy—to the forefront of the audiences’ minds and forces them to consider the question: how free are we today? Big Brother may not exist, but what he represents—abuse of power, oppression of the masses, limitations on individuality—certainly does.


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