A role in a worldwide hit play will welcome home MTC favourite Pamela Rabe. By Robin Usher.
FRENCH playwright Yasmina Reza is a global phenomenon whose latest work attracts celebrity actors wherever it is on – Ralph Fiennes and Ken Stott in London, Isabelle Huppert in Paris, and James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden in New York.
Demand was so strong in advance of the Broadway opening of God of Carnage that bookings reached $US4 million ($A4.8 million), rivalling that of multimillion-dollar musicals.
Now it is the turn of the Melbourne Theatre Company to present it as the vehicle to welcome home one of the company’s favourite performers, Pamela Rabe.
”Pam’s work is so intelligent and detailed that she is an obvious fit for Reza’s comedy of manners and pretensions,” says director Peter Evans. Rabe will appear opposite Hugo Weaving, star of such movies as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the Matrix series.
It is the first time Weaving has appeared for the MTC since he and Rabe played opposite each other in Shakespeare’s comic battle of the sexes, Much Ado About Nothing, in 1993.
”I think it’s a credit to the strength of the writing that everyone we asked agreed to come on board,” Evans says. Others in the cast are Geoff Morrell and Natasha Herbert.
The play, described as a brutally comic dissection of bourgeois values, is about two couples who meet to sort out a playground fight between their sons – a similar starting point to that of Christos Tsiolkas’ prize-winning novel The Slap.
The difference, as Evans points out, is that Reza’s play is a comedy. ”It plays in real time and the humour just builds. We are concentrating on the dramatic elements because the humour looks after itself.”
Rabe says the writing is delicately calibrated. ”As an actor you have to hold on to your character’s innocence when all the time the audience can see the fate she is hurtling towards.”
She is excited to be back after nearly four years spent mostly as a member of the Sydney Theatre Company’s full-time Actor’s Company. ”Melbourne seems so electric,” she says. ”I’m not dumping on Sydney, because I had a great time there, but the difference is palpable when you come back.”
She finds the city has become so alive with the development of Docklands, Southbank and the city’s night-time culture. ”Melbourne feels pleased with itself without having lost its approachability.”
But Rabe’s chief concern is adapting to a rehearsal room full of strangers because being a member of a repertory company meant that she always worked with the same 11 actors. ”It was the absolute high point of my professional and personal development so far. I feel incredibly lucky.”
The company was created under Robyn Nevin with a special grant from the NSW Government and included some of the country’s top performers, including Peter Carroll, Deborah Mailman and Dan Spielman, until it was replaced this year by a younger development company.
But it was very demanding because the same group felt pressured to be the pinnacle of the company’s endeavours. ”It meant every show was the equal of festival fare,” Rabe says. ”It cost a lot, and not just in commercial terms.”
But she says at least one production a year was exceptional theatre, including Barrie Kosky’s The Lost Echo, Benedict Andrews production of Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla and Andrews’ two-part Shakespearean adaptation, The War of the Roses, early this year, in which Rabe played Richard III and Cate Blanchett was Richard II.
”We did another five or six great things on top of those, but they are justification enough for the project. I am very proud of what we created because it shows what a huge opportunity is provided when everyone’s anxiety about what their next jobs will be is taken away.”
She agrees that not everything was perfect – the almost constant workload meant there was no time for reflection on how to improve things or deal with frustrations. ”But it was definitely worth developing and exploring,” she says.
Her last work in Sydney was directing the STC production Elling, which she describes as a little gem of a show. ”I enjoyed the experience, but life for me is acting. I would be happy to direct certain projects that really excite me, but I have no burning desire just to do anything.”
Rabe is happy to be back among the ranks of jobbing actors, especially as she is once again available to make films. ”I am very hopeful because that just has not been possible for the past three years.”
God of Carnage opens at the Playhouse on September 3 and runs until October 3. Go to mtc.com.au or book on 8688 0800.