Playing one of the most formidable women in Wentworth prison – Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson – has given Pamela Rabe the freedom to develop as an actor.
Wentworth is much more than just a re-imagination of iconic Australian drama series Prisoner. After four successful seasons, it’s now as volatile and unpredictable as the female inmates who populate the titular prison, and continues to gain momentum and a legion of loyal fans.
“Each subsequent season has a huge responsibility to maintain the drama and excitement and then build on it,” says Pamela Rabe, who plays the prison’s fearsome and manipulative governor Joan Ferguson, aka The Freak – a role made famous by Maggie Kirkpatrick in the original series.
“I wanted her to stand alone,” says Rabe of her interpretation of the character. “I’ve worked with Maggie on the stage, and I know her well and know the impact of that character. Joan Ferguson in Wentworth is closer in her persona to Maggie’s character than others who share their names with Prisoner characters, but I chose not to study or incorporate anything Maggie had created. I happily slipped on the gloves and went to work.”
A renowned stage performer with a number of feature films to her credit, Wentworth offered Rabe an exciting opportunity to develop a character over a number of seasons.
“It’s professionally fun and a great challenge to play such a complex and amoral character,” she says. “Joan’s resourcefulness and her indefatigable focus and ingenuity… I feel I have to approach the work with the same focus and desire to honour her unpredictability. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as free and playful. It’s given me the chance to develop as an actor, and I’m very grateful for that.”
With both Wentworth and Orange is the New Black boasting a huge fan base, the appeal of watching women in prison shows no sign of abating, and Rabe attributes the popularity of the genre to an audience’s desire for predominantly female-driven narratives.
“It’s ironic that good female-driven stories require them to be locked up,” she notes, adding that the contained universe of a single-gender institution remains a constant source of fascination. “It’s a secret world with its own rules, and a hotbed of high stakes drama. And there’s nothing more high stakes than being in prison – it’s a brutal environment.”
And Wentworth is certainly brutal! The finale of season three sent the prison up in flames and social media into meltdown, leaving The Freak in custody and her nemesis Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson) as the new governor. How Joan will adjust to life as an inmate is just one of the juicy story arcs awaiting fans in season four.
“Joan’s got a long memory and not a lot of sympathy or consideration for people she feels have betrayed her in some way,” teases Rabe. “There’s hardly a more focused character that exists anywhere than Joan Ferguson, so she will do whatever it takes to get what she wants, and there will be a shock around every corner.
“[Season four is] extraordinarily focused. There’s an inexorable, unexpected yet inevitable climax to it that’s utterly intoxicating and gripping,” she promises, “and I hope that even though it will be shocking, it will also be fulfilling for fans and the audience.”
We took to Twitter to find out what Freak fans really want to know…
Will you be back in Season 5?
I’m not sure what we’re supposed to say about that, so I’ll just say that it’s currently filming.
How do you feel about being forever associated with The Freak?
I love her, and I love that fans love her. I feel honoured to be associated with this series, and by proxy associated with such a marvellous creation. I’m very proud.
Are you aware that people are drawn to your character in unusual ways?
[Laughs] As long as they don’t do anything illegal, I think it’s probably ok. I did some fan events in the UK recently and the people coming to these events felt an affinity with Joan Ferguson – they’re an interesting crowd. But what I find quite moving about it is they’re not just highly interested in the show, they also connect to that character because they see her as being marginalised and misunderstood, and also somebody who isn’t inhibited by social rules. Those are interesting and positive aspects of the character, as long as they don’t see her as a blueprint for how to function in society.
Posted by Scott Hocking | Oct 4, 2016