The stage adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic, “1984,” has finally come to Broadway. We talked to Tom Sturridge about why it’s more relevant—and terrifying—than ever.
I’m speaking to actor Tom Sturridge less than 24 hours after seeing 1984, the Broadway play in which he currently stars alongside Olivia Wilde and Reed Birney. Sturridge is acting like everything is fine. I’m reeling from last night’s performance but Sturridge is just trying to stay cool. “I’m still figuring out how to make the air-conditioning work in my apartment, so that’s the extent of how I’m doing,” he says. “It’s fucking hot in here. I literally do not understand how New Yorkers deal with summer.” What I don’t understand is how he’s focusing on tempering the climes of his apartment when just last night he was…well, I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s say it was intense. “Yes, it is an intense play but in order to do it properly every night I have to pretend that it’s not,” Sturridge explains. “I try to go into it every night just kind of excited and having no concept of what I’m going to confront later on.”
Same here, but before I went to see one of 1984’s last previews ahead of it’s official opening at the Hudson Theatre tonight, I read some of the buzz about the show on the internet. I learned that four audience members had fainted during the performances, that Wilde had split her lip and fractured her tailbone, and that Sturridge himself had broken his nose. So I was a little nervous when I sat down, and then the play started and I became increasingly nervous because, oh my God, it’s too real. The language of Big Brother (the fascistic political party in this dystopian “future”) so perfectly mirrors some of the language we use in political life today—not to mention the constant mangling of facts and truth—that it feels eerily like 1984 was written for this very moment in time. Actually George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949. “It’s an important time to do this play,” says Sturridge, “but it’s important because this play is just relevant now, it hasn’t been manipulated to become relevant. This play originated in Nottingham 5 years ago, before we had any mention of Trump’s political ambitions. The text has not in any way—and I mean this absolutely—been changed because of the Trump administration. That is what makes it so terrifying.”
The staging of the play is also startling. Lights flash, darkness falls, and supporting characters appear as if from nowhere within seconds. It’s like magic—how do they do it? “I’ve been sworn to secrecy,” he demurs. “But it surprises me every time too! I’m not a very good actor [laughs]. I mean I can react honestly to real situations and when the other actors appear on stage I sort of go fuck!” Another surprise of the show (unless you saw him presenting in Alexander McQueen at the Tony’s) is Sturridge’s haircut, which defies description—is it a bowl cut? A mushroom? Undercut?—and I gingerly ask him how this “unusual” style came about. Before I’ve finished the question, he’s laughing again: turns out he trusted an inexperienced friend and his equally inexperienced 4-year-old daughter to give him a trim and it didn’t go well. “They had to shave all the way around to create the monstrosity that is my haircut at the moment,” he says. The weird thing is, the look is kind of perfect for the play, which is staged and costumed to be hard to locate in time. “Yeah, it could be a fascist haircut from the 40’s or it could be a haircut from the future—that’s why it works.”
From oddly on-point haircut to impossibly exciting stagecraft, 1984 and Sturridge’s portrayal of a radicalized, rebellious Winston Smith, strikes a disturbing—and yes, intense—chord. But, he insists that he, the directors, Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, and his co-stars are not trying to be partisan. “This is not an opportunity for us to get our political views out there at all,” he says. It may seem like a liberal story (and indeed, Orwell famously was a socialist), but he hopes the show will attract a diverse audience from across the political spectrum. ”It’s actually just a fucking thrilling story about a young man who, through the emancipating love of a beautiful and brilliant woman, decides to become a terrorist and take on the system,” says Sturridge. ”We’re trying to tell that fucking exciting story. The relevance is—unfortunately—there in our world, but it’s not our intention to make that connection for the audience.”