Dissolute but clever lawyer Cleaver Greene ricochets from one disaster to another in the new ABC1 series Rake – beaten up because of his gambling debts, in trouble with his ex-wife and deserted by his favourite prostitute.
His life is slipping out of his control, making the part a curiously good fit for Richard Roxburgh, who as one of Australia’s leading actors is far from dissolute but was finding it hard to keep his life under control earlier this year.
Though Rake, which he also co-created and produced with Peter Duncan, had been years in the creation, filming began at the end of an extraordinary 18 months of work for Roxburgh.
Each job brought with it an element that he found hard to resist. Who could say no to working with Avatar director James Cameron? His 3-D film, Sanctum, tells the story of a cave diver trapped underground. Then there was the Italian war drama Out of the Night, the Arctic environmental action movie Ice, and the animated Legend of the Guardians, in which he voiced an owl.
These followed on from the title role in the telemovie Hawke and the Australian movie, Matching Jack. Having done five of the projects back to back, it was no challenge for him to produce Cleaver’s exhausted and harried look.
"No, that was me just getting out of bed and rolling into work," he laughs over the phone from the Sydney Theatre Company, where he is rehearsing the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya with Cate Blanchett, John Bell and Hugo Weaving.
Weaving is one of the stellar list of guest actors in Rake, appearing in the first episode as an economist charged with murder after carving up and eating a man. It is a deft black comedy with Cleaver defending him on the grounds that the "victim" was willing to be eaten and killed himself first, and it is not against the law to be a cannibal.
Matt Day is a regular, playing the upright taxation lawyer David Potter, who is determined to bring Cleaver to heel. Day says his character is frustrated that Cleaver gets away with such blatantly bad behaviour and never seems to pay a price. "It becomes a bit of an obsession of his to play an active part in Cleaver’s downfall," he said.
Rake grew out of Roxburgh’s friendship with colourful Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet, who was on set when I watched filming, looking more like a derelict who had drifted in off the surrounding streets of Glebe in Sydney.
He was there as a consultant, advising on court procedure. Roxburgh said in 2008 on an Australian Story program about Waterstreet that he planned to do a show loosely based on the lawyer.
"The genesis for Rake is in a lot of drunken chat with Duncan in a variety of places," Roxburgh said. "About four to five years ago we decided to develop something from scratch and have fun with it.
"Charlie is an old mate and there are overlaps with his life in that he is a defence lawyer and his personal life is to my mind pretty hilarious. But it is not fair to Charlie to say it is about him and it is also not fair to the creative work of Duncan and (fellow writer) Andrew Knight."
Asked what he will go on to after Uncle Vanya, he laughed: "Oh, maybe hospital."
Then, getting serious, he said he planned to keep work at bay for a while so as not to burn out and also because he needed to be at home, having just had a second child, another son called Miro.
Rake is on ABC’s iView from Sunday and airs next Thursday at 8.30pm on ABC1.