Cruelty, sadism – it’s all there in the new governor’s hairstyle.
“Give me the stuff of nightmares.”
That was Pamela Rabe’s suggestion to hair and make-up artist Troy Follington when it came to creating the hairdo of Wentworth Detention Centre’s formidable new governor, Joan Ferguson.
‘The menace of quixotic tyranny’: Pamela Rabe (right) recreates Joan Ferguson in season two of Wentworth. | Photo by Ben King
They played around with a few different styles, before they realised that of all the Wentworth characters that owe their ancestry to the original Prisoner, Joan was the one whose accessorising bordered on the iconic.
The original Joan ”The Freak” Ferguson had a pair of black leather gloves, which she would ceremoniously don to conduct her infamous body searches.
It was a signature of the humiliating, cruel, yet random power that The Freak exercised over her minions.
For her successor, it’s a helmet of black hair, an immaculate bun that hints at the similarly sadistic streak of its owner.
”They started to form this helmet of hair, the big bun,” recalls Rabe, the esteemed stage actress charged with recreating one of Australian television’s most iconic characters, who makes her debut in the second series of the critically lauded prison drama.
”I could remember being terrified by Akira Kurosawa’s [1957 film] Throne of Blood, his remake of Macbeth, and I remember the Lady Macbeth figure there, her taciturn stillness, how terrifying her power was because it was hard to see. You were seeing the effect of it. Out of that came this ‘helmet’. It’s a construction, and anyone who would spend that amount of time getting herself together to present that face to the world is a force to be reckoned with.”
For Rabe, Ferguson represents ”the menace of quixotic tyranny”. She is the unpredictable person who has power over the inmates and staff of the prison, and will ruthlessly and possibly amorally wield it. As such, she is very much a despot for our times. Rabe notes that TV is populated these days by people who are ”purer and more distilled forces of amoral power” – Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood in House of Cards, James Spader’s Reddington in The Blacklist, for example.
Yet it is rare for such protagonists to be female and to also capture ”a mythic level of bad mother. That’s a scary archetype right there,” says Rabe. ”When society tells us that women are caring and nurturing, it’s brave to have a few that break the mould.”
The new Joan Ferguson – her famous nickname emerges mid-way through the 12 episodes of season two – has secrets and is unreadable. Her power is fragile, but it is intoxicating, dangerous, corrupting and lonely. Like a cat, she has many lives, ”sees and feels the ripples in the air” and enjoys teasing the mice she plays with.
Rabe enters Wentworth with the mission of cleaning up the mess that led to the murder of Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade) in the finale of season one, and has elevated the terrifying Franky (Nicole da Silva) to the role of top dog. Her commitment borders on the messianic.
”She’s standing alone at the peak of her own constructed front. She believes she’s doing things for the greater good, that there is a kind of elegant symmetry and harmony to people doing things the way she wants, that the world will be a better place.”
In Ferguson’s mind, the inmates of Wentworth haven’t had proper guidance or parameters.
Rabe recalls ”howling” with laughter when her agent called about the role.
Apart from her delight in playing ”The Freak” was the irony of having played the daughter of Maggie Kirkpatrick, Prisoner‘s original Freak, on stage.
”When the call came, I thought, ‘That’s perfect’.”
The first season of Wentworth ended with Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) stabbing Jacs in the neck with a pen.
”There was much debate at the end of series one about whether or not it was a flesh wound,”says executive producer Jo Porter.
”What’s so great about Wentworth is it enables, by the very nature of being prison, people to come and go, and it enables reinvention very naturally with each series.
”We knew we had to replace the energy of [Jacs’s] role with something equal, which is what brought around the idea of introducing the character of Joan Ferguson.”
Porter says it was a deliberate ploy to not reintroduce the legendary character when the drama began last year.
”The wonderful thing, too, about the legacy of Prisoner that we have to draw upon is that there are so many rich and amazing characters. The dance card was full for series one. Joan is one of many iconic characters that we have the ability to bring into play at the right time.”
Porter says that other actors were considered for the part of Ferguson, but they were ruled out once it became clear that the shoot could work around Rabe’s theatre commitments.
”The power she brings to the role and the nuance … Because she’s so playful and inventive, she’s a joy to watch and work with. She’s a sweetheart, and so unlike the character on screen.”
Together with its flimsy and wobbly sets, the original Prisoner took some delight from its panto campiness.
In contrast, the reboot is filled with at times highly graphic violence and searing performances of unhinged characters struggling to survive the prison’s Darwinian power regimes.
”The writers have worked really hard, even though these are heightened characters, to still bed them in truth,” says Porter.
”All of our actors are very careful to do that with their characters. Yes, you could consider [Ferguson] sadistic, but there’s a bone of truth to it. As the series unfolds we’ll get to understand a little about what her bigger game plan is and what’s driving her.”