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Carving Out Her Own Room

Actor Pamela Rabe left Canada for love. She now lives and works in both Sydney and Melbourne, yet feels she hasn’t fully moved into all our theatre spaces, writes BOB EVANS.

AS a bald statement, Virginia Woolf’s assertion that for a woman to write fiction she must have “money and a room of one’s own” can sound so blue-stocking bourgeois and so positively Bloomsbury that the first impulse is to write it off as yet another bit of British elitism.
But that impulse evaporates if you read A Room Of One’s Own or see the dramatisation of Woolf’s two lectures to the women students at Cambridge on which she based her book. The play, with Pamela Rabe acting the role of Virginia Woolf, opens this Thursday at the Belvoir Street Theatre. Rabe has appeared twice before on stage at the Belvoir. The first time her identity was concealed under a mask of Japanese inscrutability as she played the Mama San in Daniel Keene’s adaptation of Cho Cho San for Playbox. She was still a virtual unknown in Sydney when she next appeared, playing Alice B. Toklas, companion to Miriam Margolyes in the role of Gertrude Stein.
That was in 1987, five years after Rabe had arrived in Australia from Canada, newly wed to Roger Hodgman, who had come to Melbourne to take up the position as artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company. Since then Rabe has only appeared in six productions in Sydney. But in each one her performance has been memorable. First there was her role as Angelica Bianca in the touring production of The Rover, directed by Gale Edwards. Then followed a string of appearances for the Sydney Theatre Company, first as the Girl in The Ham Funeral, then as one of the sisters in The Secret Rapture and next as Olga, the quiet, scholarly one in The Three Sisters. That was followed by a complete about-face; playing the fiery Beatrice in Much Ado. Then it was back to another silently tortured soul, playing Bella in Lost in Yonkers.
One of the reasons why Pamela Rabe took the role of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own was that it seemed like a chance to create a bit of room for herself, to strike out on her own — not in Sydney — but in her adopted home town of Melbourne.
Having been sent the script and having accepted the offer from two first-time producers, Baillie and Sullivan, Rabe was excited by the prospect of performing the play in one of Melbourne’s fringe venues that had nothing to do with the Melbourne Theatre Company, for which she has done most of her work.
Sullivan acquired the Australasian rights to Patrick Garland’s play, having seen the original production televised on SBS last year. And unbeknown to Rabe, he and Baillie had offered A Room of One’s Own as a package, with Rabe and director Lois Ellis, to the MTC’s then general manager, Andrew Kay.
As Rabe says, the package was irresistible to the MTC. It had all the right ingredients: a set that consisted of nothing more than a table and a chair and a cast of one who was a familiar face to the MTC subscribers. “Of course they jumped at it,” says Rabe.
“Suddenly I was part of a package that was once again associated with the MTC. Luckily Chris Westwood came aboard from Adelaide with the State Theatre Company of South Australia and it started to become more of a co-production,” she says.

Pamela Rabe

To understand Rabe’s concern about the Melbourne Theatre Company you have to appreciate that she is forever trying to carve out a professional career of her own, independent of her husband and the theatre company he directs. She is acutely conscious of the connection, far more so than anyone else. It is a natural concern but one which Rabe perhaps takes to unnatural lengths. She wants a career and she wants to be employed on her own merits, not because of her marital status.
The irony is that, given her talent, no one — certainly not in Sydney — would ever consider that Rabe was cast for any reason other than what she brings to a role. Part of it perhaps stems from her being a migrant and of having come from a colony that has also suffered a cultural cringe. In all the parts she has played in Australia since her arrival in 1982, Rabe has only recently been cast in her first Australian play — as the obsessive-compulsive Ruth, in the MTC’s production of Cosi by Louis Nowra.
Asked if she found it difficult leaving Canada to come to Australia, Rabe says no. But she adds a qualification : “If I had dealt with the trauma and grieving of uprooting myself from my culture at the time, I wouldn’t have spent this much time getting it out of my system. Of all things that is the thing I come back to the most. I can never forget that I am a migrant. What right do I have to say certain things? There is some part of me that is dying to express itself and which has no place in this culture. Will I be stuck doing Shakespeare plays and American Broadway hits forever?” she muses.
Rabe in fact based herself in Sydney for two years in 1991 and 1992. One of the reasons for it was to put some distance between herself and the Melbourne Theatre Company. Another reason, more generally, was to cross over the divide between Sydney and Melbourne. As Rabe says: “People don’t move much from State to State around the country. I thought that if I wanted to be considered for interstate roles I should move. I think being employed here is as much to do with attracting someone’s attention, the serendipity of it, as to whether you have the ability to do the work or not.”
Looking back on the experience, Rabe says that living separately from her husband was a difficult time: “In so much as I learned how dependent I was on him, which I found more terrifying than romantic.” As for Virginia Woolf, Rabe insists that she is not attempting an impersonation in performance. She and the director, Lois Ellis, decided it was not to be a piece of virtuoso acting. “I don’t want audiences to think: ‘Oh, isn’t that a clever actorly thing to do. Isn’t she a good actress.’ What we did in rehearsal had more to do with peeling away, trying to throw absolute focus onto the ideas in this piece and making me as transparent as possible.”
Having now performed the work in Adelaide and regional Victoria Rabe says that the way people receive this piece seems to depend on how they are with their own lives. “How old they are, how disappointed they are, how full of hope they are for their future achievements. A lot of people find it quite depressing, saddening and disturbing that so much of what Woolf said in 1928 is still true now and that we haven’t progressed beyond it. “But what is also exhilarating about it is that she is speaking about universal issues — things that will always be — but it seems that she is doing her damnedest to say them without bitterness or hatred.
“It is easy, when you have made certain steps forward, to forget about how much work was involved in getting there. And that is as much a relevant message to me as a woman in the 1990s remembering all the doors that have been opened for me in the past 50 or 60 years,” says Rabe.
Meanwhile, by another process of serendipity, the rehearsals for A Room of One’s Own just happen to coincide with Roger Hodgman’s arrival in Sydney to prepare for the transfer from Melbourne of his production of The Sisters Rosensweig at the STC. I forgot to ask if Rabe is allowing Hodgman to share her room for the week.

The Sydney Morning Herald / 15 August 1994
Photo by James Alcock

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