Pamela Rabe has built a reputation for playing the “heavy” roles in the theatrical canon – The Wicked Witch of the West, even Richard III – but for sheer malevolence, nothing tops playing Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, the sadistic black-gloved jailer of the rebooted Prisoner series Wentworth, airing on Foxtel.
Rabe, who is preparing to play a monster of a different stripe in Belvoir’s coming production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, has recently finished filming the third season of the series in Melbourne.
“I’ve known Maggie Kirkpatrick [the original “Freak” from the ’80s soapie] for a long time now,” Rabe says. “We did a tour of The Beauty Queen of Leenane for the Sydney Theatre Company playing a mother and daughter. So there was some serendipity in me being asked to take up the gloves.”
On screen, Rabe lives up to Prison Officer Joan Ferguson’s unofficial title. “I felt like I had to earn that nickname,” Rabe says. “When the audience knows you’re going to get nasty, it’s all about working your way to that destination as interestingly as possible. It’s a great challenge.”
In the third series of Wentworth, The Freak is now governor of Wentworth. “The whole notion of woman in a position of real power is very interesting,” says Rabe. “The day I got the call for the show was the day after Julia Gillard had been ousted as prime minister and what she went through made me think very hard about what are the qualities of a female in power, and how do you manage the ever-present threat of chaos. How do you get people to share your vision? In Joan’s case, it’s how do you get people to want to please you?”
Rabe’s role in The Glass Menagerie is, in many ways, just as controlling as The Freak. She plays Amanda Wingfield, former Southern Belle, now single mother living in near poverty in pre-WWII St Louis. The character is very much modelled on the playwright’s mother, Edwina Williams, Rabe says. “Tennessee obviously had a very strong but difficult relationship with her.”
Abandoned by her husband years ago and chafing under the constraints of financial hardship, Amanda has brought up two children: Tom (played by Luke Mullins), a would-be poet who works in a shoe warehouse; and Laura (newcomer Rose Riley), Tom’s older sister. Left with a limp after a childhood illness, Laura is deeply withdrawn and painfully shy. Nevertheless, Amanda is obsessed with finding a “gentlemen caller” to be her husband. She zeroes in on a likely candidate in Tom’s old high school friend Jim (played by Hugo Weaving’s son Harry Greenwood).
“They all live in a claustrophobic apartment in which there’s limited amount of room to breathe, while Amanda certainly takes up more than her fair share of oxygen,” says Rabe, who adds she is not an obvious casting choice for the role. “Williams describes Amanda as a tiny little woman, a bird-like woman,” she says. “One of the first things I said to [director] Eamon Flack is, you must want the monster on the outside when you cast me because I’m so big!”
Canadian-born Rabe, 55, says she met and worked with Tennessee Williams before he died in 1983. “It was wonderful, I was very lucky. I went to an acting school that had an intensive two-year course,” she says. “It was attached to a professional theatre company and in the second year we were apprenticed into the main stage shows and one of those was his play The Red Devil Battery Sign. We played a gang of feral kids. Tennessee himself had been mugged by a group of youths and that must have informed that notion of a threat of a thuggish world or an ugly world against the fragility of someone who carries a hope for beauty and higher things. It seems to be a theme that runs through so much of his work.”
Unlike Belvoir’s recent productions of American classics such as Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie will be performed as a period piece and in American accents, Rabe says.
“This is a play of memory. It’s a very specific memory of a mythologised past. It is a collision of dreams. You can’t shy away from the lyrical sentiment that riddles this play. Eamon has chosen to take cues from Tennessee’s own stage direction and they are beautiful.
“In his original script he had stage directions for music title cards, and images on screens. Most directors discard them because it’s too hard, or seems hokey in some way. But Eamon is honouring that. Rather than shying away from sentimentalism, we are going right into the eye of the storm of it.”
The Glass Menagerie opens on September 24 at Belvoir and runs until November 2, $35-$68, 9699 3444.
By Elissa Blake