"I was conscious of not wanting to make any sort of value judgements about the sort of people that addicts are..."
When Mortido, a brand new play by Angela Betzien, premiered last month in Adelaide, the city of churches lived up to its name — much to the chagrin of Tom Conroy. His hotel room had its own unsnoozeable alarm, a tolling bell from a neighbouring church sounding on the quarter hour prompting Conroy to tweet: "Oi, sinner, we've disturbed your sleep; still not coming in?"
It seemed to be addressed not to Conroy, but his character in Betzien's play, Jimmy.
While it is the face of veteran Colin Friels that has dominated the publicity in the lead-up Mortido (Friels plays a handful of characters, a grizzled detective Grubbe is the main) it is Jimmy, an ex-drug user, current drug runner, and TAFE student from Sydney's west that's at the centre of the sprawling story about the seedier side of Sydney and the cost of desire.
"It was interesting to see the things that Adelaide audiences really connected with, because most of the play is set in Sydney."
"It was interesting to see the things that Adelaide audiences really connected with, because most of the play is set in Sydney and there's stuff that an audience here will connect to differently," says Conroy, before listing suburbs, letting what each signifies swirl about. "We talk about things like Woollahra and Penrith and Parramatta, and these have certain implications for a Sydneysider."
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Conroy grew up in the same neck of the woods as Jimmy before relocating to Melbourne to train at the Victorian College Of The Arts. Not that a shared postcode meant Conroy wouldn't have to work at the character.
"I mean, I'm not going to downplay my fairly middle-class background," Conroy jokes, "but I went to school in Penrith and used to have to catch two trains to school, so I'd spend half an hour at Blacktown Station each day, so I got to draw a bit on personal experience of people I've met and observed during my childhood and adolescence."
Sprawling from Sydney's west to the opulence of its eastern suburbs, to Bolivia and back again, Mortido presents the layers of a drug market that promises glory and seems destined to topple.
"With Jimmy, I really wanted to wrap my head around what it means to be an addict and what that means from moment to moment for someone in terms of the decisions they make in their life. Mortido is a Freudian concept about our desire for self-destruction, and the way that manifests in Jimmy is certainly something that was feeding him with this addiction to meth that he had for six years.
"I was conscious of not wanting to make any sort of value judgements about the sort of people that addicts are; it is something that is ultimately very human, that attraction to things that will destroy you. When we meet Jimmy at the beginning of the play he thinks he's on a particular trajectory that leads to material prosperity and wealth and a rejection of his more working-class upbringing, but actually he is headed down this much darker path."