Currently starring in the MTC/STC co-production of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, Pamela Rabe and Sarah Peirse are performing together for the first time in almost three decades.
They sit down with Maxim Boon to reflect on the past and talk about the future.
Maxim Boon: In The Children you play two old colleagues who meet after a 30-year absence, which is not unlike your professional relationship, having last performed together in The Heidi Chronicles at the Russell Street Theatre in 1989. What do you recall of the last time you shared the stage?
Sarah Peirse: We were best friends in that, I think. We were school friends in fact. We were kind of goofy as I recall!
Pamela Rabe: Yes! But unlike The Children, which has the unity of time and place, in a story that plays out in real time over 120 or so minutes, The Heidi Chronicles charted our relationship over about 40-years, ending up with us as very depressed and very disillusioned middle-aged women.
SP: Did we get as far as middle-age?
PR: Well, we were so young, how would we know? But my character at least ended up being very disillusioned with where the post-feminist world had ended up.
SP: Yes, I don’t think my character got quite as far as yours.
PR: It certainly did focus-in as a story. That’s actually what it was about: the deep, profound friendships of your youth and how they fragment and erode, and yet in some sense endure over time.
MB: That really does share an uncanny resonance with the relationship between the two characters you’re now playing in The Children, Rose and Hazel.
SP: It works perfectly, actually. It gives us a great sense of history and a great sense of unity in a shifting time, in a time of great personal shifts. And yet there is this shared alignment. So it has been oddly useful to have that point of reference.
PR: And it’s another piece of great female writing, just like The Heidi Chronicles.
MB: While I have you in a nostalgic frame of mind, is there any piece of professional advice you’d give your 1989 selves?
SP: Mine would be, hang on in there! It will eventually pay off. I think that’s a very individual journey for each individual actor, of course. Every career has peaks and troughs.
PR: I actually had a lot of people giving advice to my 1989 self, which was really valuable. So I guess my advice would be, to listen. I’ve always had mentors throughout my life, and Ruth Cracknell was a particularly important one for me at that time. And I recall her saying to me that if you can hang in there, and focus on perfecting your craft, there will come a point when everyone around you starts either quitting or dying. And then the world will be your oyster!
SP: Maybe we’ve reached that point? That could be the secret of our success?
PR: She was kidding of course. But it is true that it does take years to develop your craft. But also, the hardest part, I find, is managing the emotional landscape of the kind of work that you’re asked to do, because of course the characters become more complex psychologically as your career progresses.
I often think of Ruth [Cracknell], who would have been in her early-to-mid 60s in 1989. I think in every show I did with her, her character died. And Sarah and I are now at an age where the roles often involve problem children. I’ve just had a year of playing extremely tortured parents [in The Testament of Mary, Ghosts, The Glass Menagerie] and it seems that it isn’t a landscape that’s particularly full of joy.
Women of a certain age, at the moment at least, have that very difficult emotional terrain to negotiate. In fact, the most fun I’ve had on stage was playing Richard III, which is really saying something!
SP: It’s funny thinking of the type of roles you get to play, and looking back over a 30 year span, it reminds me of the vast number of Australian actors who have been my children.
PR: She’s the mother of Australia!
SP: I have sort of parented an awful lot of wonderful actors of all ages, and yes, those roles can take a toll on you. They can be emotionally taxing because of the range of behaviours you’re confronted with as a mother. But it’s also very rewarding to share that parental bond with wonderful performers. In The Children, I’ve actually really enjoyed playing a role that isn’t a mother, and has made a choice not to be a mother. It’s the first non-parental role I’ve played in a very long time.
MB: Sarah, you’ve also played a number of characters in the past couple of years who are fiercely accomplished intellectually: Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland; a neuroscientist in Fury [both by Joanna Murray-Smith], and now a nuclear physicist in The Children. All those roles were penned by women. Do you see a shift in the status quo, with more roles emerging that reach beyond that maternal stereotype?
SP: Absolutely. And I think that kind of writing is coming through more and more, and making it to our biggest stages more and more.
PR: That is a huge shift from the kind of theatre that dominated in the ’80s and ’90s.
SP: It really offers, very fortuitously, some tremendously complex and challenging roles at a point when you have the experience and skill to take them on. And what’s really exciting, is that this shift is happening largely in new work. It’s really reframing the female experience towards a more essential and central determining role, rather than something more passive to the circumstance or a role that is only reactionary.
MB: And it seems that change is also being driven by directors as well as playwrights, and of course you’ve both worked with Sarah Goodes, director of The Children, in the past – in fact, Pamela, Sarah was your Assistant Director in 2009 at the very start of her career. It must be rewarding to have that perspective on an artist and to work with them now as fully matured theatre-makers.
PR: Well, Assistant Director is a fraught job. They’re there to audit the experience, so you don’t get to see their ‘work’ as such. But I’ve been in almost a hundred or so rehearsal rooms in my career, and it is fabulous to see where these young artists, who cross your radar, end up. There’ve been so many. Barrie Kosky was an Assistant Director on a production I worked on – I think he disappeared on about day four and never came back! Benedict Andrew was the AD on another, Anne-Louise Sarks was another.
SP: Jane Campion [Oscar-nominated director of The Piano] was the runner on the first film I ever did in New Zealand.
PR: So the quick answer is, it’s thrilling. It really is.
SP: And you get these rhythms that recur through your career, which is magnificent. It’s terrific to work with Sarah again having worked with her on Switzerland, because you get to have a very nice shorthand, which just makes the rehearsal room such an easy and nurturing space. It gives the process a really good flow.
PR: I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of those young, emerging directors and then watch them stride forward in their careers into a blaze of glory. But it’s so valuable when you get to work with them twice, and even better if it’s three times. They understand you, you understand them, and that instantly creates a lot of the trust you need in a rehearsal room.
MB: Let’s talk about The Children. One of the interesting challenges of a play like this, is that the reputation of Lucy Kirkwood is stratospheric, so expectations are high, but The Children is a new piece of writing, and therefore an unknown quantity in many ways.
SP: I was aware of Lucy Kirkwood from Kip Williams’ production of Chimerica, so I already had some sense of her talent. But really, you have to feel a personal response to a role in order to realise its potential, first and foremost you have to have a response to the writing.
Regardless of how well it may have been received overseas, if I’d read it and I hadn’t felt a connection to it, then I would have passed. And in the end, your choices in that role determine the way that character will be experienced by an audience.
PR: And once you get into the process of exploring that text, and mining it, and bouncing your ideas off your fellow actors in the rehearsal room, the thought of any influence outside of that space completely disappears. And you don’t necessarily have to understand the whole of the role before you enter into that process either. If you can find one small something, one moment where you feel that click, 99 per cent of the rest of the work can be a mystery, but if you have that one glimpse of what you might bring to that role, then you’re in. And if the play has been written well, and designed well, then that is enough to go on.
MB: One of the most remarkable qualities of The Children is its duality of scale. On one level, there is the colossal danger of a Fukushima-type nuclear disaster. At the same time, there are deeply personal connections that power these insular micro-crises. What is the process of realising characters that have these competing concerns?
PR: You have to be a bit like Hansel and Gretel following the breadcrumbs, because so much of the relationship between Rose, Hazel and Robin [played by William Zappa], and the situation unfolding outside, is revealed in this rather elliptical way. So there’s quite a bit of the rehearsal period that’s spent mapping those relationships backwards, and that layers in a lot of the complexity that you need embedded in the interactions of these people.
It was also very necessary to look at the experiences of people in Japan. There was one extraordinary book that Sarah brought in to the rehearsal room, called Ghosts of the Tsunami [by Lloyd Parry]. It has to be one of the most incredible pieces of journalism I have every read.
MB: This is perhaps the wrong word for it, but having that reference point must be something of a gift.
SP: Oh it is, it’s a complete gift. Because it informs and penetrates into the working space in a way that absolutely informs the enormity and the sheer mundanity of that situation, that we also see in the experiences of people in Japan. So of course, in the performance there’s this terrible, suffused grief and sadness, and yet you can’t really play it, because the situation they’re in demands that they wrangle those emotions to a point where you can deny it, or avoid dealing with it. Or be willing to make an attempt to rebuild.
PR: And to circle back to the Lloyd Parry book, he writes in his introduction this extraordinary thing that at the time of the earthquake he was the Tokyo correspondent for The Financial Times, and he’d lived in Tokyo for about a decade. But even as reports of the tsunami and the nuclear disaster were reaching Tokyo, he could not imagine what it could be like for the people living in those areas. So he felt he had to go and put himself into those communities, and build up these close relationships with people who had gone through it, so he could report that experience to the reader, so they could share that imaginative space.
There’s one chapter about a man trapped in his house as the waters were rising. It’s a visceral, almost cinematic piece of writing, a nightmare sequence. But it’s so palpable, the terror of that moment, and a similar feeling sits behind the work we do on stage every night.
SP: I’d say Lucy Kirkwood’s writing is so technically accomplished, that our job becomes about navigating the anxieties that are already embedded in the structure of the language. But in a way, through the research into the tsunami and Fukushima, you’re laying those words over an imaginative bank, and that’s what you carry with you on stage.
MB: There’s another duality in the message that this play communicates: there’s a parable about the manmade destruction of our environment, but there’s also a message about intergenerational responsibility.
PR: When I read the play, the combination of the title of the play, the fact Lucy would have been in her late 20s when she wrote it, and the fact that she has a character in their 60s who says, ‘It’s your duty to fuck off at some point,’ I felt a very strong message, loud and clear, that there was a cry, coming out of a generation, that was telling the Baby Boomers to let go, but also to take responsibility for the world we’ve created.
SP: But it works in both directions, because while it is a story about responsibility, it’s also about legacy, and so there’s hope there too, I think.