A Chat with Tom Conroy from the stage adaptation of 1984

By Ben Madden | @benmaddentweets

The stage production of 1984 (the George Orwell book, not the year), is currently on an Australia-wide tour. The adaptation builds on Orwell’s novel which takes place in a dystopian future, where no thought, action, or idea is safe from the monitoring of Big Brother. Catalyst spoke to lead actor Tom Conroy in the middle of the play’s Adelaide run about his experience with 1984, thought control, playing Winston Smith, and torture scenes.

Catalyst: How have the shows in Adelaide been going?
Tom Conroy: Yeah, great actually! It’s such a huge, technical show, so it was sort of a scramble getting it to opening night. Now that we’ve been able to run the show, I feel that we’re starting to find the rhythm to it. People seem to be responding really well to it, which is great.

Do you think audiences have been caught off guard by how technical it is?
I think some of them have. It depends what expectations people come in with. If you’ve come to the theatre expecting to see a traditional retelling of George Orwell’s book, then you’re probably going to be disappointed. It’s a show that’s been made for audiences now, and even though I think that the play sticks true to the spirit of the book, it does update it for a contemporary audience.

Do you think it was necessary to update it?
I think there’s no point revisiting old texts unless you ask the question – ‘why do we want to tell that story now?’ I know that when the creators (Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan) started to adapt the book, they thought it was very important to find a way so that the audiences experienced the story in much the same way as people who read it at the time did.

Technical aspects such as the loud noises and flashing lights can be quite disorientating at times, but they wanted to give the audience the experience that Winston goes through in the story.

How do you find yourself having to get into the mindset of Winston every night?
In terms of the day to day stuff, it feels a bit like running a marathon. The journey I go on over the 101 minutes is kind of huge. In some ways, I just have to forget about the task ahead of me. All you can do is get ready for the first moment.

It’s been a big process of trying to understand the driving force that sits under Winston. Before each night that I perform the show, I try to tap into this thing that I think sits at the core of Winston, which is this incredible loneliness frustration, anger and fear at the world around him. It’s this suspicion that there’s no-one in his world that thinks like him, but he’s desperate to find out if there’s people he can connect with. To understand that, I did a lot of research into people who have come from totalitarian regimes, defectors from North Korea, looking at East Germany, and trying to understand what that’s like to grow up in a world where you’re surveyed all the time – where you’re constantly afraid of saying or thinking the wrong thing, in case you get killed. I also looked at what that stunting does to you as a person, and if you’re instinctively someone who wants to push against those boundaries, how that motivates you to find any way possible to push against that.

You were a latecomer to 1984, only reading it recently. Did you find you could relate to Winston, even in this contemporary world?
Absolutely! In the book, he’s in his late 30s, and he’s got a varicose ulcer, and he’s pretty beaten up physically. I’m about to turn 30, so my Winston is inevitably going to be slightly different to the one portrayed in the book.

It’s funny, because when people talk about the book, they tend to talk about the horror tropes that exist in it; the rats in the cage, or that terrifying moment in the end where he wins the victory over himself and loves his brother. People talk about it in that sense, rather than talk about him as a person. In that way, I didn’t feel like I had many preconceptions at all. I’ve done plays that have been based on books before, and there’s something incredibly useful to not just have the script as a source, or for clues about the character, but being able to go back to the book and find out more. One of the great things that novels do, and that plays just can’t do, is that you can get inside the character’s head in a really particular way. You can get a sense of their internal and emotional landscape in a much clearer way than you see in a script.

Is it hard performing a play that people may know the ending to?
I’m not sure how many people come to the show having read it versus not having read it. I know that people who have come to the show and read it have said that reading it didn’t make it any less shocking, and in some ways knowing what’s coming means the tension is greater, because you know where he’s headed. For a lot of it, Winston thinks he’s on the path to becoming a hero and a freedom fighter, but  it’s actually a lot smaller and sadder than that. I think regardless of whether you know the ending or not, it’s an incredible thriller, so I think the tension remains..

The torture scenes in the play are quite graphic. How did you find experiencing that every night?
They’re very cleverly done. When you’re dealing with torture, you have a responsibility to portray it in a way  that’s as truthful as possible. Torture is happening all around the world right now, so if you’re going to delve into what that’s like, you have to do it truthfully. The way we do it in the play is through the power of suggestion. Very rarely do you actually see me being tortured. Often, you see the moments after I’ve been tortured, with the blood and the wounds that have been inflicted upon me, which in horror films is often the scariest part. The part which I find most psychologically traumatising is how methodical his torture is. O’Brien, the torturer, and the way he breaks down Winston physically, intellectually and emotionally, is so plotted and sociopathic. There’s something sinister about that.

It’s quite chilling how willingly and totally people are buying into a regime which barely exists.
Absolutely! It happens all the time. There’s a great quote from the Truman Show, which I know is a source of inspiration for the creators of the play,  where the Ed Harris character says “we accept the reality which we are shown.” There’s something about it that I think is terrifying. By and large, we accept the state of play, because in some ways it’s easier to be complacent than to question the world around you.

You don’t want to believe you’re in a bad situation.
Questioning things, and questioning everything around you is only going to bring you pain, really. If you’re able to find a way of blocking that out and succumbing to the way things are, ultimately your day-to-day happiness is going to be greater. Obviously, that’s a bleak life philosophy to take.

Finally, what do you think people should be taking away from this play specifically?
Ultimately, you hope people come away with a whole range of responses to the show. The original motive behind Orwell writing this book, and that exists in this play, is that it’s a warning. It’s something for us all to think about. If we are complacent, if we let government shut down freedom of speech and freedom of press, it can lead to a world like the one you see in 1984.

You can see Tom in 1984 at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, May 31 to June 10; Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, June 14 to 18; Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, June 28 to July 22; Canberra Theatre Centre, July 25 to 29 and His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, August 4 to 13. Tickets available here


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