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Ruth Cracknell: an actor’s friend and inspiration

Accent: Super models

Ruth Cracknell: an actor’s friend and inspiration

Actor Pamela Rabe continues a series of reflections by prominent women on the “super models” who inspired them.

About the second day I was in Australia, my husband — well, he wasn’t my husband then — took me for a walk around Sydney and to Crows Nest. It was very hot and I was very jet-lagged, and he took me to a gallery.

As we were thumbing our way through some etchings, he nudged me and there was this very elegant patrician presence in the corner of the room with white-blonde hair. He said “that’s Ruth Cracknell, she’s a very famous actress”.

He had told me about her in Canada in the late ’70s. She had played the lead in an Edward Bond play that I was very fond of called The Sea. This obviously sowed a seed of great awe in me, and there she was,and I was actually in her presence.

I was aware of Ruth from then and I think I had seen her on stage a number of times, and on film. You can’t collide with Ruth’s presence without being affected in some way.

I have always collected tall women in my life. I don’t think I’m particularly obsessed with my height — I was brought up with my father’s advice: be proud, walk tall.

When you are tall, people assume that you should be majestic. It is funny because so many tall women feel different, I think, especially when they are defining their sexual attractiveness — when you are in your teens you just want to look like everybody else.

Pamela Rabe | Photo by

There are so many pressures to be smaller, bend down, try to blend in with the crowd, be feminine (whatever that means) — to actually keep your head up through that is hard.

Ruth is still going strong. She turned 70 last year. She’s indefatigable, her stamina is breathtaking. In fact she just makes me tired.

I have done long tours with Ruth and I have dropped before she has many, many times. It’s daunting, it’s terrifying, but it’s also very inspiring. She’s always pushing herself.

She’s done everything from Shakespeare to film and sitcom television. She’s always broken the mould. Now she’s in a musical and she came out of revue.

Maybe she has a lot of vulnerability and other things I choose not to see. I admire her technique, her humor, her delicacy, her toughness, her sexiness. I think Ruth is probably acutely aware there aren’t many role models in theatre such as herself around.
As women in theatre or performing arts try to survive the moat of the menopausal female — the transition for most women is from the sexual object to the mother figure — many drop by the wayside. For those that survive that transition, there should be a badge you can wear if you just get through that. Theatre is an exhausting career and one with no end to it — you don’t retire at 65.

I feel as long as Ruth keeps going, I can too. She constantly makes me look forward to the stimulation of that.

Ruth Cracknell | Photo by

She has potency as a public figure, with the responsibility that carries. This can stop you being too selfish. The nature of being an actor is that you get so up yourself and so introspective, you can actually get yourself into a very lonely knot.

Ruth is aware of the responsibility to use her public role. I admire that in her a lot.

When I walk with Ruth, I’ll do something and point and say “look at that”, and people might hear me and turn and they’ll see Ruth, and she gets mobbed.

I am so impressed by her choices a lot of the time, even if I don’t get to see the shows. She did Happy Days, the Samuel Beckett play — that was really brave, and she did that right after The Importance of Being Earnest. I have seen her do Shakespeare in Sydney.

But the times she has often taken my breath away are when she is public speaking — at functions, at the tribute to Richard Wherrett at the end of his tenure at the Sydney Theatre Company, her speeches to women’s groups. Her ability to extemporise off the cuff is so good.

We have done a lot of things together over the past few years — Three Women and Lost in Yonkers.

What we often attribute to tall women is part of that majesty thing — that patrician air. We endow them with something, and we fear that.

People think that because you’re tall you’re aloof, because you’re looking down your nose at them — literally!

Ruth has a great dignity — even that can be a bit terrifying when you first meet her, then you realise the warmth behind it and the wit. She makes me laugh a lot.

Pamela Rabe and Ruth Cracknell are performing together in the MTC’s A Little Night Music at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until 8 March. Pamela Rabe spoke to Sonia Harford.

Source: The Age | 07 February 1997

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