It’s hard to imagine Pamela Rabe as Goldilocks. Blonde and precious. When you think of the parts she has played over the past few years, those are not the characteristics that spring to mind. Strong, yes. Passionate, yes. Committed even. But blonde and precious?
But Goldilocks was a seminal role. Her first lead, she says. And if she were a smartarse, she would say it was what turned her on to acting.It was the dress, you see. In Canada in the early ’60s, her sister Jacqueline got “the greatest frock in the world” to wear to their uncle’s wedding. She was going to be the flower girl, but that didn’t stop young Pamela from coveting the dress. When she landed the role of Goldilocks at kindergarten she also wangled the dress to wear. It was her first lead. Before her hair changed color, of course. And long before she came to Australia.
Jump forward to the late ’90s and local audiences know Pamela Rabe as one of the most versatile and gifted of actors; if she is involved in something, then it’s worth seeing. She is passionate about her craft -“it’s like a drug thing. I never feel so absolutely engaged as a human being as when I’m performing” – a passion that emerges as she talks of her commitment to the process of rehearsal, the excitement of performance and the danger of live theatre. More prosaically, she says that she has never been particularly ambitious for anything other than good employment.
She is at home in Shakespeare, Coward and Shaw, was a revelation as Countess Charlotte in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and won an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actress for her performance as Hester Harper in Samantha Lang’s film version of The Well. Shortly before Christmas she completed – in five frantic days- the part of Laura Trevelyan in a dramatised version of Patrick White’s Voss for BBC radio.
Last night she opened in the first Melbourne Theatre Company production of the year, Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. Like British playwright Christopher Hampton, who did an earlier sharp-witted version, Crimp has radically rejigged the 17th-century original, bringing it up to date by placing it in a con-temporary world of mass media peopled by actors, artists and journalists while retaining its knife-edge satire.
It’s funny, dark and, with its rhyming couplets, a delicious piece of writing. It also makes different demands on the actors.
“Normally I would approach a role by going into rehearsal and tentatively feeling my way through the emotional and mental journey of the character … I always thought the most important thing is learning why you say the line, not what you say.
“But in this case you have to be more meticulous. I’m much more aware – and at an earlier stage in rehearsal – that you’re keeping a very light ball up in the air and if you’re not technically practised the whole thing grinds to a halt.”
Rabe jumped at the chance to appear in Simon Phillips’s pro-duction of the Crimp version, partictilerly relishing the challenge of the couplets. “I remember seeing a play called La Bete in New York. It was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s only foray into straight theatre – it was killed by bad reviews – but it was a modern play set in the 17th century and written in rhyming couplets. It had an extraordinary effect when you were sitting in the theatre.”
Rabe says that a lot of factors go into whether she accepts a job offer. Obviously there is the question of whether the role is worth taking. “There have probably been a couple times when I’ve convinced myself that it’s high art when I’ve probably been doing it for the money.”
She also considers her own capabilities. “Just on a personal professional level, I’m assessing whether it’s something I think I can do: It’s that fine line of balancing that you’re always pushing yourself and always moving into an area where you can surprise yourself and surprise an audience, give people something new and keep pushing the parameters of your own ability. And yet at the same time not pushing yourself so far that you’re doing something that you’re not capable of doing.”
She also has to consider what she has to go through in the process of getting a part to the point of performance. She reckons she might be getting crankier as she gets older but perhaps it’s simply a question of not being talked into entering a world that is just too unpleasant. The 19th-century Swedish playwright August Strindberg is someone whose work she no longer feels she has the appetite to tackle.
“There are a couple of productions I’ve done where the world you enter is so black and awful that I believe you’ve actually shortened your lifespan, some part of your soul has shrivelled up because of where you’ve gone.”
And then there are the politics of her situation. Because she is married to the artistic director of the MTC, Roger Hodgman, she says she does have to he “careful about assessing for myself whether there’s a hint of nepotism there. That’s been a big factor for accepting work for the MTC.”
She is relieved that at last a successor, Phillips, has been appointed to replace Hodgman from the middle of the year.
“I look forward to working with him (Hodgman) without having to worry about whether it looks as if I have been given undue credit or preferential treatment.
“I do believe you tend to work with people who are passing in your peripheral vision and you enjoy working with. I’m around a lot, he knows I’m there, although Roger has been extremely careful. We both have. I can’t help but have an advantage. It bothers me and I am very aware of not exploiting it.”
Her focus is very much on the immediate future. She arrived bright and early at the MTC’s South Melbourne headquarters to talk to The Sunday Age. She has to squeeze in a session with the photographer and then there’s a fitting for the elaborate costume she wears in the masked ball scene at the end of The Misanthrope. The biggest hurdle is the company Christmas party, which she has to negotiate before the first run-through in the Fairfax Theatre. How are rhyming couplets after a few glasses of bubbly?
The Misanthrope is at the Faiths Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre.
Story by Jason Steger
The Age / January 3 1999
Photos by Julian Kingma