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No Business Like Shrew Business

From cackling with glee on a broomstick to playing the fiery Kate in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Pamela Rabe controls the message she gives.

At First I didn’t recognise Pamela Rabe. The last time I saw the Canadian-born actress she wore a tall, pointy black hat, a chin to match, and an evil grin. That was five months ago when she stole the show as the Wicked Witch of the West in the ‘Wizard of Oz‘, cackling with glee as she careened about on her broomstick.

Now, with her hair in a brunette page-boy style, Ms Rabe sat demurely sipping an iced coffee and studying a script of Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew‘, in which she will play the fiery Kate (or Katharina).

Although she began acting in Vancouver, Pamela Rabe’s career began in earnest eight years ago in Melbourne as an aspiring 23-year-old. She moved into the dramatic mainstream, appearing predominantly with the Melbourne Theatre Company, and has become one of Australia’s most accomplished stage performers. Recent appearances here have included leads in ‘As You Like It‘, ‘Cho Cho San‘, ‘The Heidi Chronicles‘ and last November’s ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten‘.

In Vancouver, Ms Rabe had worked with director and husband-to-be Roger Hodgman, and accompanied him to Melbourne when he took up the post of lead of drama at the Victorian College of the Arts. After Mr Hodgman was appointed associate artistic director at the MTC and eventually took over the company’s helm from John Sumner, Ms Rabe became uneasy about the possibility of being regarded as “Mrs Hodgman” each time she was cast in an MTC production.


Pamela Rabe | No Business Like Shrew Business (Photo by

A few of Pamela Rabe’s many stage guises: Kate (second from right), in shades and bridal beil, is the latest in the MTC’s 1950s-style ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
(Photo by The Age)

Thus, 18 months ago, she decided to base herself in Sydney. She landed major roles in the Sydney Theatre Company’s ‘The Ham Funeral‘, ‘The Secret Rapture‘ and ‘The Three Sisters‘, as well as ‘The Rover’. Now, having established her stage credentials beyond dispute (and to her own satisfaction) in both cities, Pamela Rabe is back with the MTC, at least until September.

The role of Kate is a gem. Ms Rabe’s Petruchio will be Hugo Weaving, in a 1950s updating by Roger Hodgman of the boisterous Shakespearean comedy. It opens at the Playhouse on 22 June. Five Weeks later, in the same theatre, Ms Rabe will play Marcheline in Beaumarchais’ classic French comedy ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, directed by Jean-Pierre Mignon (the play will be staged on alternate nights with Barrie Kosky’s new Victoria State Opera production of the Mozart opera, in celebration of the composer’s bicentenary).

“It is hard to talk about a play in the middle of rehearsals,” she says. “For an actor the best time is probably just after you’ve accepted the part or just before you begin to perform.

“You start out with an intellectual approach to the role, then you join 12 other actors who bring their own energies and ideas, and your original idea turns into something else, in a kind of fiery pit of activity. Your mind takes second place to your creative instinct and you try to work as much on that and your emotion as possible.”

Her last modern-dress Shakespearean role was the blonde, punk Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’, a 1988 MTC production staged in rotation with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It received a wild reception from its high-school preview audience, she says. “Many of them had never been to the theatre before. We got a letter from a teacher afterwards who said the kids had agreed it was a much more realistic experience than watching a movie.

“There’s something thrilling about sitting in a theatre and watching people perform in front of you. Maybe there’s the danger of it going wrong or knowing that if you got up and screamed at the stage something would happen, whereas in the cinema the film just keeps rolling and people tell you to shut up.

“Watching films on a big screen in a dark room is as close as you get to being by yourself and dreaming. It’s such an intense, intimate experience. In theatre you are constantly aware, as a group, of making a contract with another collection of people on-stage. You’re all in there together.”

Although she agrees theatre can occasionally reach rare heights of “wankery”, organised by a self-appointed elite, “when it works there’s nothing like it — on either side of the footlights”.

Why dress up ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ in early 1950s clothes?
“Roger has a preference for doing Shakespeare, especially comedies, in modern dress. So much of the comedy is based on character and personality clashes on the stage that it is easier, in a shorthand way, to make points about types by dressing them in an identifiable way. You can make strong visual points and get on with the comedy.”

Its sexual politics make ‘Shrew’ a problem play but, Ms Rabe says, it’s always been a crowd-pleaser. And whether Petruchio really tames Kate at the end is open to interpretation.

“Everyone has a different idea about Kate’s final speech, where she preaches love, obedience and — apparently — subservience to her lord and master, her husband. Many feminists have strong ideas about this being a pro-feminist play, and a lot of them have fewer problems with it than conservative academics. It poses an awful lot of questions and upsets people but it is big, robust, rambunctious and full of fun.”

Pamela Rabe’s accent has developed into an attractive Canadian/British mixture, with occasional softly stretched vowels. Her family migrated to Canada from the Ukraine and she in turn jumped at the chance to settle here, including taking Australian citizenship. “I have no delusions about the fact that my opportunities have been greater than in Canada,” she says.

Amazingly, Ms Rabe is one of many fine Australian stage actors rarely seen on TV or in films. Her appearances have been limited to a telemovie, ‘A Single Life’, and in episodes of ‘The Fast Lane’ and ‘A Country Practice’, and in the ‘Nancy Wake’ mini-series.

“Stage and screen are fairly exclusive processes,” she explains. “The time-frame for making films and television is completely different from that of theatre. You reach a certain status in the theatre world where people approach you for projects 12 months in advance. But in film most people get, at the most, three or four months’ notice and often even less.”

Pamela Robe is also acutely conscious of her height (188 centimetres) and accent. “In Australian films verisimilitude is important, whereas on-stage there is a theatrical sensibility — factors like height and experience are advantages on big stages. Film is more limiting. How your image in repose is seen by the camera can tell volumes, whereas on-stage you have more control over the message you give.”

After so many forceful roles, from the contemporary angst of Heidi to the fiery Kate, does Pamela Rabe worry about being typecast and hanker for some light relief, playing a kooky secretary, perhaps? She considers this rather mischievous question with surprising seriousness.

“It’s a tricky business because your own sense of control is elusive. So often other people seem to be making the choices for you and I am amazed at my ability to get talked into a part. Within 24 hours of someone suggesting it, even if I thought it was the last thing I wanted to play, I’ll decide it’s absolutely right.

“Right now I don’t have the luxury of turning down roles. I have to take what’s offered but so far the roles have been so diverse. The only thing they have in common is they’ve been strong in some way — not always in the same direction — but the characters have all had an impact on the plays they’re in. In ‘The Rover’ (in Adelaide and Sydney) I was a jilted courtesan, a rare opportunity for a glamorous role. I was a Thatcher Tory MP in David Hare’s ‘Secret Rapture’ and I came back here to Heidi and Eugene O’Neill.

“I’ve been lucky to be fairly consistently employed. I tend to panic — I’d rather be working and know what’s coming over the horizon, than just sit it out and wait for the phone to ring.”

It Is a toss-up whether Pamela Rabe or the audience enjoyed her ‘Wizard of Oz’ performance more. “It was so unlike anything else I’d done before,” she says. “I’d just finished the O’Neill play (as Josie in ‘A Moon for the Misbegotten’) and it was like going to the other end of the Earth, flying around In a harness, with all those kids and that music. Actually I’d always wanted to be in music theatre.”

Although there is talk of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ touring nationally this summer, and of ‘The Heidi Chronicles’ going to Sydney, there is nothing definite on the horizon for Ms Rabe after ‘Figaro’.

“Times are hard for everyone at the moment,” she says. “I can’t help but note, as is usually the case, that a lot of plays are weighted heavily on the male side. Sydney has seen a series of virtually all-male Shakespeares, with men playing the women’s parts as well. There are not that many women’s roles around anyway … even ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is full of men.”

But Pamela Rabe shares most actors’ love of Shakespeare. “His plays tell you a lot about yourself as an actor and a craftsperson. They demand special skills and the quality of the writing is often so sublime.

“It is an extraordinary feeling to get up and perform something written 400 years ago that talks of pain and emotion; love, hate, pride and duty — the things we feel just as acutely and intimately today.”

Mike Daly

Source: | 15 June 1991

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