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Across The Great Divide

Two of Australia’s prominent actresses, Robyn Nevin and Pamela Rabe, are taking the plunge and moving into unknown territory in Sydney and Melbourne.

We have become so used to the great divide between theatre in Sydney and Melbourne that when an actress of the stature of Robyn Nevin says she is leaving Sydney to base herself in Melbourne it seems as though she ought to apply for a visa and have her passport endorsed.

But even as Nevin is planning to travel south, Pamela Rabe, an actress of more than equal stature, has forsaken Melbourne and moved her base of operations to Sydney, relinquishing — for a time — the company of her husband, Roger Hodgman, artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Except for next month, when both she and Robyn Nevin are appearing in MTC productions. Robyn Nevin, the diminutive powerhouse, is playing the role of Bunny, in John Guare’s bizarre comedy ‘The House of Blue Leaves’, written originally in 1971 and revived to great acclaim on Broadway last year.

Pamela Rabe, tall and febrile, takes on the role of Josie in one of the later plays of Eugene O’Neill, ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten‘. This play, written in that final outburst of creativity before O’Neill succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, prefigures his later attempt in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ at coming to terms with his mother’s long-term drug addiction for which he blamed himself.

Pamela Rabe | The Age Interview 1990

‘The House of Blue Leaves’, directed by Mr Hodgman, opens on 3 November at the Playhouse in the Victorian Arts Centre. A week later ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’ premieres at Russell Street.

Ms Rabe, who came to Australia from Canada in 1983 when Roger Hodgman was appointed head of drama at the Victorian College of the Arts, sees many similarities between Australia and Canada, including the sibling rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, which she likes to the gulf between Toronto and Montreal.

Canada tried to build up a facade of splitting our capital into two cities, and you’re forced to choose which one you’re going to go to and in making the choice it’s like you’ve made a pledge of allegiance. So that doing something as simple as going up and getting a Job in Sydney required that I shift my life and say: ‘I am now based in Sydney’. I knew I had to do that to get a look-in because I knew nobody was going to come down and have a look at me in Melbourne,” Ms Rabe says.

In that time she has been in three productions for the Sydney Theatre Company, first as the ethereal beauty in the revival of Patrick White’s neglected classic ‘Ham Funeral‘: then the archconservative sister, Marion, in David Hare’s ‘Secret Rapture‘ and most recently playing Olga, the eldest (“because I’m the tallest“) of Chekhov’s ‘The Three Sisters‘.

Last June she starred in ‘The Heidi Chronicles‘ for the MTC and she will play the witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz‘ musical at the Victorian Arts Centre in January.

Ms Rabe says she only discovered acting late in her teens and considers her career really began in Australia. Her first role came courtesy of John Sumner, the man whom her husband eventually replaced as artistic director of the MTC. Sumner divided up a bit part for her in his production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’.

Somewhere out there today is an actor who is cursing me still for stealing half a line,” she jokes. And the humor reveals some of the pressure she feels being the wife of the incumbent artistic director. Although she doesn’t articulate the underlying reason for her decision to move to Sydney, part of it is obviously the desire not to be seen to be getting work because of her marriage.

Ms Rabe moved north partly to prove to herself she could get work on her own merits. “I thought it would be politic to not be seen to be working too often at the MTC when Roger is running the company. And they must be getting absolutely sick to the teeth of seeing me down there.

“And I wanted the change. I wish we all moved around. It is a small country and the theatre-going public is very small and the pool of actors is relatively small. The only way to keep the theatre vital, vibrant and alive is to keep it changing, keep it moving around and mix it up a bit,” she says.

Robyn Nevin, who is happily trading places, agrees. Ms Nevin has been one of the mainstays of the Sydney Theatre Company for most of its 10 years under Richard Wherrett. She originally made her debut in the ’60s with the Old Tote — the predecessor of the STC. She also held the post of associate director at the STC for several years, directing two plays by Jennifer Claire, ‘The Butterflies of Kalimantan’ and ‘Siestas in a Pink Hotel’, Shaw’s mammoth ‘Heart-break House’ and ‘The Philadelphia Story’. Robyn Nevin is still probably best known Australia-wide for her un-forgettable, award-winning performance as Shasta in ‘Water Under the Bridge’, one of the real achievements of Australian television. She was an equally powerful presence in the film ‘Careful, He Might Hear You’.

After ‘The House of Blue Leaves’, Ms Nevin, who now divides her time between directing and acting, will direct a production of Michael Cow’s play ‘On Top of the World’ for the MTC. Before her move to Melbourne she directed a production of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ for the State Opera of South Australia (her first opera) and Turgenev’s romantic comedy ‘A Month in the Country’ for the Queensland Theatre Company in Brisbane.

She has obviously not been standing still although the impetus to move south seems to have come from a deeply felt sense of dissatisfaction and, no doubt, disappointment. Robyn Nevin was one of the few who felt they were called but not chosen to replace Richard Wherrett as STC artistic director.

“I’ve been working in this profession for 30 years and recently I’ve looked around and thought: what’s been achieved? I look at the standard and I think it is generally low,” she says.

She perceives a dearth of exciting young directors coming up through the ranks to replace her generation and as well she sees a decline in the standards and commitment of the younger actors, in sharp contrast to the younger opera singers she worked with in Adelaide.

Mid-conversation, Ms Nevin muses for a minute about the ease and prosperity that might be had from opening a florist’s shop, not that she’s really thinking of giving the business away but she’s getting tired of being in work but not really making any money.
The way she feels, doing ‘The House of Blue Leaves’ is going to be a welcome respite. “I’ve done so many strong, tragic, grieving women that I don’t want to do any more. I’ve given too much of myself to the theatre and I want to exercise different skills and hear an audience laugh,” she says.

After lead roles in ‘Tom and Viv’ and ‘Woman In Mind’ for the STC and ‘The Cherry Orchard’ last year for the MTC, Robyn Nevin cites her two last David Williamson plays, particularly ‘Emerald City’, as the most rewarding productions she’s been in recently.

“I heard the audience laughing and I love that sound. I’ve got to a point where I need that kind of response, the sense of life in the auditorium. ‘Tom and Viv’ required an enormous amount from the audience — not to mention what it required of the actors — it was fairly wrenching. I found the audience almost unwilling to be moved in that way.

“That’s what I love about Bunny — the character I play in ‘The House of Blue Leaves’ — she’s as tough as nails and broadly comic: she says of herself she’s a great cook and a dud lay. It gives me a chance to have fun. Which is not to say it is going to be easy.”

Nor is Josie going to be easy for Pamela Rabe, although there is a part of the character she relates to. “Josie’s got this great gruff, bluff exterior that she puts out to the world; she is a woman who is very big and thinks she is very ugly — which are things I relate to very strongly. She goes around telling everybody — like I do, before they can say it — ‘I’m big, I’m ugly — ha, ha, ha’.

That is certainly not the Pamela Rabe I met, nor have ever seen.

Bob Evans

Source: The Age | 27 October 1990

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