Al Pacino wasn’t the greatest Richard III of our times. Hunched and hissing, he played Shakespeare’s villainous king like a low-rent Mafioso in his 1996 docu-drama Looking For Richard. Alec Baldwin played Clarence. It was that kind of film.

Pamela Rabe says she watched it while preparing for the role of the Yorkist bad boy in the upcoming Sydney Theatre Company production of The War Of The Roses. Did she learn anything from Pacino?

“Not to wear a baseball cap backwards,” she says, laughing.

“But he did remind me that there’s enough anxiety just trying to act the role well and knowing what the play’s about without burdening yourself with a whole lot of other stuff about whether you can do it as well as the English or any of that rubbish. He reminded me that ownership of the role is all.”

Pamela Rabe in The War of RosesThe War of Roses Rehearsals

The role of Richard III has been famously played by the greats of the stage: David Garrick in the 18th century, Edmund Kean in the 19th. Laurence Olivier, Antony Sher, Ian Holm and Kenneth Branagh have all laid claims to “definitive” portrayals in the 20th century. In Australia, John Bell earned a Helpmann Award for his interpretation in 2002.

Only rarely, however, has Richard III been played by a woman.

Tom Wright, who has adapted The War Of The Roses from eight of Shakespeare’s plays, says that he and director Benedict Andrews weren’t looking to cast a woman to make a point about cross-gendering. “There’s no attempt to skew a reading of Richard by having a woman play the part. It’s more a case of Pamela’s strengths as an actor when refracted through the role of Richard III. In her case: wit, physical presence, a nice line in cynicism, her bemused stance, an elegance,” he says.

Rabe has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means for a woman to play the role. “I’m still working it out 10 weeks into rehearsals,” she says. “I think the audience will decide in the end. After watching all the other plays in this stripped-back environment that Benedict has created, where so much has been done with the language to stimulate your imagination, by the time I come on with my breasts and floppy fringe – and cockless! – the audience may just accept it.”

And what of Richard III’s infamous – if historically dubious – hunchback, club foot and withered arm? Does Rabe have a specific disability in mind? “Only my natural ones,” she laughs. “We threw this around quite a bit on the early stages of rehearsal but we decided that a disability in this context didn’t have a place. You can actually see the construction of this monster in the Henry plays so to just give him a hump would be too easy. His disability is more like a virus running through all the plays, finally coming together to produce this sick monster clown.”

Instead of focusing on external manifestations of evil, Andrews and Rabe were more interested in the way Shakespeare envisaged Richard as an actor playing the role of a king. “He’s the lead actor in his story, and the director and the stage manager,” Rabe says. “Richard decides how people fit into his master plan, who dies and in what order. He even enlists other people to play roles and act out his story. There are still times when you are reminded of his deformity and there are times when you pierce through that to see this deeply sick soul at work.”

The War Of The Roses is the final production for The Actors Company, soon to be replaced by an eight-member ensemble called The Residents. The actors are already saying their farewells, says Rabe. “We’ve had our last day in the rehearsal room and soon we’ll have our last opening night. I miss them already.

“It’s been extraordinary working on this kind of a project. The premise that Robyn [Nevin] really believed in, that the work is palpably different when you have a group of people working together over a period of time – something that can measurably improve quality – started to happen but hasn’t quite been seen through.

“We went through a very exciting time in the first 12 to 14 months and then hit a time when, understandably, the community gets bored with what you’re doing. They don’t want to see the same faces any more. But I think that could have been tested if it had gone through to its full five-year duration. It’s like a footy team or an orchestra, the community needs time to bond with its players.”

Rabe says that ambitious works such as Barrie Kosky’s The Lost Echo and The War Of The Roses would not have been conceived without The Actors Company but believes that projects of that scale took their toll on individuals. Some of the actors quit before their contracts ended. Colin Moody stormed out with a highly publicised spray aimed at the artistic leadership of the STC, saying that actors weren’t being afforded time to discuss the ideas behind the plays they presented.

“To me it was right that some people left,” Rabe says. “People were getting worn out. The pressure to perform large-scale projects meant that every outing had to be a show-stopping festival-style piece. But those projects are usually worked on for a year or more and tour for five years. We were having to churn one out every 10 weeks.”

This year Rabe will go to the Perth Festival with The War Of The Roses before going into pre-production with Elling, a Norwegian comedy she is directing for the Sydney Theatre Company. “It’s a beautiful play and very funny,” she says, adding that after Elling she plans to move back to Melbourne where she will perform God Of Carnage with the Melbourne Theatre Company in August. “Sometime in October I may have a holiday.”

And the future?

“I’m hoping there might be some projects that I’d like to direct. But I don’t have a burning ambition to be the next Benedict Andrews,” she says. “I hope there is life in me as an actor yet. So long as I do a job well and people continue to appreciate me and offer me projects, then I’m very happy. I don’t have a Richard III-like drive to be directing everybody and everything.”


Photos by Tania Kelley and Brett Boardman