AS JOAN “The Freak” Ferguson in hit TV series Wentworth, Pamela Rabe plays Australia’s most-hated villain.
But in her solo show, the Malthouse Theatre’s production of The Testament of Mary, the acclaimed actress takes on the controversial role of the mother of Jesus.
“They’re not that different in the end,” Rabe said.
“As an actor you’re exploring a human being, the humanity of a character and doing your best to bring that story alive for an audience.
“They’re both women. I just play the woman. The challenge is actually for the audiences to flip from one to the other.”
The play is based on award-winning Irish writer Colm Toibin’s novella, which became a Tony Award-nominated Broadway play and is frequently restaged around the word.
The Testament of Mary examines themes such as women’s roles in history being rewritten to suit dogma and dealing with the aftermath of trauma. It has found a resonance with current issues including “fake news” and religious extremism.
“This is not the depiction of a saint, this is the depiction of a human being, a mother whose son has died,” Rabe said.
“We know so little about her, and the little that is known is only from some very meagre, meagre words in the New Testament in the Bible.”
The in-demand actress, coming to the play directly from performing in Ibsen’s Ghosts in Sydney, said doing a solo show was “lonely” and she was “descending into a world of grieving mothers”.
“What I love about this piece of writing that Colm Toibin has created (is) it’s very interrogative, an imaginative exploration which invites everyone to have their own individual response to the kind of trigger that he presents,” she said.
“Night by night people will bring their own understanding.”
The Canadian-born Rabe, who lives in the CBD, met director Roger Hodgman and came with him to Australia on a permanent resident visa in 1983.
“It was a hell of a lot easier then that is now,” she said.
With the future of The Freak unknown since she was last seen trapped in a coffin in the cliffhanger ending of the last season of Wentworth , Rabe is giving away no secrets — “I couldn’t tell you that even if I knew!” She relishes playing “a fab creation”.
“The writers are canny about picking up on the qualities you yourself as a performer bring to a character and exploiting it, really.” she said. “(They) think, ‘She can go there’, let’s put her in this situation and see what happens.”
The Testament of Mary is at the Malthouse Theatre, November 3-26. Details: malthousetheatre.com.au
by Helen Johnson