PAMELA RABE earned accolades from critics for her performances with the Melbourne Theatre Company. In Sydney she is attracting similar attention. AMRUTA SLEE reports
As a fresh-faced drama student in Canada, Pamela Rabe played out her first professional role — a hooker — under the gaze of Tennessee Williams.
The legendary American playright was guest director at the tiny Vancouver Playhouse Acting School where she studied theatre. Rabe, rehearsing a small part, had plenty of time to observe Williams who had a disconcerting habit of discussing actors’ merits while they were on stage.
“He told me I had great legs,” she says cheerfully. To put it in perspective she explains she was so intimidated by everyone at the time that being watched by a theatrical icon was no more frightening than anything else. Now she sees it as a great introduction to the industry.
After that she fell in love with an Australian and in 1983 came out here to marry him — a move which coincided with the start of her acting career.
Home was Melbourne, where she became familiar to audiences as a member of the Melbourne Theatre Company, but at the moment it’s Sydney. “No-one in Sydney has seen me. I’m a new face.” she says.
“To keep everybody moving around is great for audiences and great for actors. I feel a new lease on life and on my art at the moment because I’m allowed to appear before a new audience which doesn’t have preconceptions about what you do and how you’re going to do it.”
Her concern about being stereotyped means she is reluctant to reveal her age, except to say she is 30-ish. “It’s not vanity. I couldn’t care less about that sort of thing,” she says. It was simply that from an actor’s viewpoint age defined what roles you play or don’t play.”
The Sydney roles she has appeared in so far have been diverse enough to rule out preconceptions. As the Ma Ma San in Cho Cho San critics called her “audacious”, as Alice B Toklas in Gertrude Stein and A Companion she was “delicate, passionate, fiercely protective” and “flinty” and as the would-be poet in The Ham Funeral she was “eloquent and prosaic”.
Like all actors Rabe is in the curious position of taking on a different personality and becoming immersed in it until a play ends. Having recently seen her in a production of the restoration comedy The Rover, where she plays a highly-priced courtesan, wary of men and haughty of the whole world, this reporter arrived expecting to find an aloof and ‘tragic figure.
Rabe is quite the opposite. Thoughtful and articulate, she describes herself alternatively as obsessive, restless and impulsive: in other words, perfect for the gipsy-like existence she leads. Her tedency is to see life in relation to whatever play she’s in at the moment. We found her preoccupied with questions of good and evil because of her role as a junior Tory minister in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret Rapture.
“It’s a play about modern morality.” she explains. Marion French, the character Rabe plays, is described by the STC publicist as “horrible” but Rabe says: “No. no. she’s a wonderful woman.”
She argues that Marion, though conservative with a narrow view on life, only seems nasty because the audience sees her through her sister Isabel’s eyes.
Actors who try to distance themselves from characters they dislike, on the theory that the audience will hate them too, miss the point she feels.
“If you love the character and love their evilness,” she says, “then in the end the audience does like you more.” For that reason she has spent a lot of time trying to understand Marion.
Although they are poles apart in beliefs and outlook Rabe can empathise with her, pointing out that the rigid structures she builds around herself are protective. Further, she says that Marion is convinced what she does is always for the right reasons. even if others find her behaviour appalling.
Many of Pamela Rabe’s roles have been women who, like Marion, have strong characters: parts most actresses would kill for. She attributes this to the way she looks.
“If you are a six-foot tall, dark-haired woman, adjectives like ‘insipid’ don’t come to mind,” she says. “I am cast in roles where people think my physical attributes will be of some use which generally means outrageous ‘characters, slightly oddball, social misfits or ‘strong women’.”
Denying looks are as important to actors as they are to other visual occupations such as modelling, she agrees there are insidious messages. For instance, somebody once told her: “You’ll probably grow into your parts when you’re in your 30s.” Whatever that means, she says with a shrug. “Maybe they’re saying ‘You won’t play Juliet but you might play Juliet’s mum’.”
But while she’s flattered by the range of roles people have offered she also knows which doors are closed to her. There are plenty of Australian plays for which she thinks she will never be considered.
“I go through this roller-coaster thing all the time,” she says. “I fiercely committed myself to becoming an Australian and then I awakened rudely out of that to realise I would never be accepted as an Australian as much as I thought I could.” She is quick to add that it’s not something she thinks about often. But as an actor she says, her job is to reflect the society she is in. Whereas a native-born Australian would never question what she calls “the validity of their voice” she says she sometimes suffers “niggling thoughts”, even though she realises nearly everyone in Australia is a foreigner.
Those thoughts are triggered by questions about her accent – a mixture of trans-Atlantic twang and BBC English. She comments on the need to cultivate an English accent for theatre, saying that like other orphan colonies Australia still bows to a dominant culture in the arts.
She thinks a stronger local identity will emerge when playwrights start writing drama which recognises that Australian society is made up of more than one voice. And things will improve for actors who have transplanted themselves here.
Reminded that there is usually no room in Australian drama for Aboriginal voices either, she says: “Yes, things could be worse.“
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald / 11 March 1990
Photos: Colin Townsend