Nearly 70 years since George Orwell’s visionary, dystopian novel 1984 was first published, Big Brother has survived being commandeered as a reality television show to remain a terrifying concept – and one that resonates strongly in the digital age, along with many of the novel’s catchphrases including “doublethink”, “thought police”, “Newspeak” and the notorious “Room 101”.
The Australian cast of 1984. Photograph © Shane Reid
1984 is famously set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of Oceania, in a world perpetually at war, where a totalitarian government controls its citizens’ every move, and thought. It tells the harrowing tale of Comrade 6079 Winston Smith, who toils as a clerk in the Ministry of Truth, where he is responsible for rewriting newspaper articles to reflect the party line and erasing eradicated “unpersons” from the public record. But then, Winston embarks on an act of rebellion when he buys a diary to record his inner thoughts and observations about the world around him, and forms a relationship with a colleague called Julia.
There have been numerous adaptations of 1984 over the years. In 2013, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan adapted and directed a new British stage version. The immersive, visceral co-production between Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre, proved such a hit that it has had three West End seasons and has toured widely. Tonight, a production with an Australian cast, presented by the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company, opens at Adelaide’s Her Majesty’s Theatre at the start of a four-month national tour.
The role of Winston is played by Tom Conroy, whose many stage credits include Charlie Bucktin in Jasper Jones for Belvoir, Mortido for STCSA and Belvoir, Hay Fever for STC, The Wider Earth for Queensland Theatre Company and Cock for Melbourne Theatre Company.
He spoke to Limelight about 1984 and taking on the role of Winston.
I believe that you first read Orwell’s book quite recently, not having studied it at school?
I did, yes. I was told that there are a significant proportion of people who think they’ve read the book who never have. I’d heard a lot about it and eventually, three or four years ago, I thought that enough was enough and I should actually read it. So, it was still quite fresh in my mind when the script came along [for the audition]. I had heard of the production but I didn’t know much about it. All I knew was that there was a new, edgy production out of London.
It’s perhaps not surprising that many people feel they’ve read it, given the number of familiar catchphrases from it….?
Yes, it seems like it’s part of our collective subconscious in a way, certainly in terms of the shorthand that we use to describe things like ‘doublethink’ and “thought police”.
What do you make of the fact that the book has returned to the top of the bestseller lists in the era of President Trump?
It’s interesting. Orwell wrote it in the wake of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War starting to filter in. Between now and then there have been so many different totalitarian and fascist governments around the world that have come and gone, risen and fallen, so I think the book continues to have currency throughout the ages but I think over the last six months certainly, since Trump got elected, it does feel like people are looking to the book as, I’m not sure, but maybe as a validation of their fears about the way the world is at the moment and finding something in literature that reflects their experience about where the world and where Trump might go.
Tom Conroy as Winston. Photograph © Shane Reid
So how do you see Winston?
It’s a funny thing. There has been some discussion in the rehearsal room about his motivation and what is the driving force behind his rebellion, or attempted rebellion at least. [As an actor] you have to be your character’s biggest defender in a way. It’s been put forward by some people that he’s someone who is trying to find glory. I think it’s smaller and sadder than that. I see him as an everyman, a very ordinary man, who one day suddenly his eyes are opened to the true horror of the world around him and the totalitarian state that he lives in and there’s an inevitability that comes with that realisation – which is that Winston feels he has to act and do something to push against the world around him. I don’t think it’s necessarily altruistic but I think there’s a deep drive in him to try to desperately hold onto his own sense of self in a world that is constantly trying to erode that, and make you question your sanity because the rest of the world sees things differently to the way that you do.
“There has been some discussion in the rehearsal room about [Winston’s] motivation and what is the driving force behind his attempted rebellion…. It’s been put forward that he’s trying to find glory. I think it’s smaller and sadder than that”
It’s a matter of life and death really in terms of the individual, and individual thought and freedom of thought. So it feels like a desperate struggle and I think that’s what drives him to look beyond reflexes at what it actually means to be human, and to look at the world around him and see things as they really are.
There is something interesting about the way the play is structured. During the first quarter of the play, Winston is much more passive. The way they’ve structured is there’s a sense that Winston – like the audience – is trying to understand the rules of the world that he’s found himself in. As he gradually comes to realise the rules of the game, he becomes more empowered within the story as an agent of change. And he feels that he’s on a path that will lead to the destruction of the regime around him, so he naively begins to become radicalised.
Apparently the scenes in which Winston is tortured are quite graphic?
Yes, it’s pretty brutal. I think when Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke were crating it, one of the things they wanted was for this production to be very visceral for the audience. In the book it’s very brutally described what happens to Winston, and his physical and psychological breakdown is quite graphic. They wanted to stay true to that. It is very harrowing. I think it order to have an affect – which is to scare us all a little bit about the dangers of fascist and totalitarian governments, then it has to go there. If you are going to do a show that involves torture you have to be truthful to the horror of that.
“I’m still grappling with how I feel about having to go through [the torture scenes] every day”
How are you coping with having to imagine going to such a dark place?
I’m still grappling with how I feel about having to go through that every day. Part of your job as an actor is to come face to face with some of the darkest human experiences, and I think one of those is someone being completely destroyed. It’s kind of a huge responsibility in a way, and that’s how I am looking at it. Around the world now, and historically, and into the future there will continue to be people who go through similar things to what Winston goes through and I have to believe in the importance of that story and my role in the telling of that. I think that this belief in the importance of storytelling is something that gets you through it.
Tom Conroy as Winston. Photograph © Shane Reid
The production apparently uses a lot of multi-media?
Orwell wrote a book about a world of constant surveillance. Nowadays we have a relationship with that in a way that he would have had no idea about in the late 1940s as he was writing the book. The way that that’s been realised on stage is extremely clever I think. We have eight live cameras situated around the space and there’s a sense through those live feeds that even those moments which Winston thinks are private moments aren’t. There’s something very clever about that thematically, but also in terms of the way that it brings the audience into the story. It has a very voyeuristic feel but I think, hopefully, the audience feel like they are more part of the story as well.
Can you tell us about the framing device that the production uses?
When Duncan and Robert were doing the adaptation, they though it was strange that not many people really knew Orwell’s appendix at the back of the book. It actually serves a function within the book. Even though you don’t get much idea of the future, there is a sense that there is a future voice looking back on Winston’s diary and so I think they wanted to find a way to theatricalise that and so they came up with this framing device of a book group sometime in the future, maybe 100 years after Winston was writing his diary, looking back on what he wrote. In the hundred years that have passed, his diaries have become legendary in terms of the books of the Oceania regime. There’s also a sense that it’s all imagined as well and that maybe this is all part of [the propaganda and perhaps written by Big Bother]. I think the audience is left to decide whether this is a real future or an imaginary future.
1984 plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide until May 27; then the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, May 31 – June 10; Lyric Theatre, QPAC, June 14 – 18; Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, June 28 – July 22; Canberra Theatre Centre, July 25 – 29; His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, August 4 – 13.