On television she is known as Wentworth’s Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson. Actor PAMELA RABE, 61, splits her time between Melbourne and Tasmania and is starring in the world premiere of The Last Season as part of Sydney Festival
Before this interview I actually felt a bit nervous and realised it’s because I just binged season eight of Wentworth. How does it feel to play a character who provokes such a visceral reaction?
By the time my work meets its audience it’s always a good 6-12 months after it’s finished so I’ve generally well and truly moved on and [the reaction] takes me by surprise. Generally speaking, people are pretty good. Just occasionally I see a shift in eyes. Some people hyperventilate a little bit but I’m not sure if that’s more to do with the fact that somebody they’ve had in their loungeroom for a binge session has suddenly materialised in front of them or whether it has something to do with the terror Joan Ferguson wreaks.
Thinking about one’s ability to change, is it a case of once a villain, always a villain?
Well, that would be sad, wouldn’t it? We all have a — probably never more so than now in the middle of a pandemic — a desire for things to be normal and not to change. So maybe if people want to put things in a box. I haven’t found that personally. If it’s a question of a professional “once a villain, always a villain”, that’s certainly not been the case. I’m lucky enough to work across a lot of different media doing a lot of different roles that stretch me in different ways. But I don’t ever take for granted the great gift and privilege it was to play that villain. I’m certainly not the first person to say villains are wonderful to play.
You’re performing as part of the Sydney Festival with dance theatre company Force Majeure, Paul Capsis and Irish actor Olwen Fouere in The Last Season, which is billed as an Intergenerational conversation. What ideas are at play in the work?
When you enter a room where there are three older people surrounded by an ensemble of younger people between nine and 14 — and it’s been crystallised by this pandemic we’re all struggling through — [you ask] what is this world we are handing on to our young people? You feel the energy of these young people pulsating, blowing up the walls of this huge venue at Carriageworks. The energy is amazing in that room. I’ve never felt so old in my life. It’s an emotional experience, a physical experience, a sensual experience that makes you think of so many things, climate change being just one element. There are notions of age, history, power, youth, impressionability, how we mould our young, all couched in the framework of the seasons. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are used as a framing device — even though you don’t hear Vivaldi musically in the production. Hopefully, it will send people out thinking about the nature of change itself and the nature of the gifts and burdens that we load on to our young ones.
Some of your childhood was spent on the edge of the Yukon River in Canada. How did you end up living Australia?
The Yukon was only a small portion of my upbringing — about two years — although at the time it felt like an eternity. I spent most of my time growing up in Vancouver and it just happened that I met an Australian when I was about 19 and he was offered a job back in Australia and we came here.
“He” is director Roger Hodgman to whom you’ve been married for 36 years. What’s the key to making it work?
I don’t know. We probably used to say the key was we spent so much time working apart but now life’s too short and I don’t like being away. That’s really hard. I don’t know. Respect? We really like each other. Always have. We never run out of things to talk about.
If Roger watches you on stage, does he give you feedback when you get home?
Our relationship began as a teacher-pupil; it would be illegal now, or not illegal but very much frowned upon. I was not a minor but times have changed … He has an extraordinary gift and I value his opinion and feedback so much. I always say I have no idea what he said or how he did it but he always just makes me feel better. Safe. He has a great gift at grounding and reinforcing the work that is being made.
The Last Season is showing at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Festival, January 6-10.