Robyn Nevin has had a long, illustrious stage career, but 2015 could be one of her most memorable years yet.
She started it as the ruthless Mrs Venable in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer for Sydney Theatre Company, earning rave reviews, and will end the year there playing the Fool to Geoffrey Rush’s King Lear in a production directed by Neil Armfield.
Currently, she is preparing to play Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s great anti-war play Mother Courage and her Children for Belvoir, directed by in-coming artistic director Eamon Flack, who helmed Belvoir’s superb 2013 production of Angels in America in which Nevin also performed.
“It’s a wonderful year. I’m one very grateful woman,” says Nevin, now 72, during a break in rehearsals.
Best known as one of our leading stage actors, Nevin has found a whole new fan base since playing the posh, bigoted Margaret in the ABC-TV comedy Upper Middle Bogan.
She looks set to boost her screen profile still further with her performance in Brendan Cowell’s new film Ruben Guthrie, a black comedy based on his play, which opened the Sydney Film Festival this week before its general cinema release on July 16.
Ruben is a hard-living advertising executive who tries to get sober when he nearly kills himself jumping off a roof while pissed. Nevin plays his well-heeled mother, who keeps pushing him to go back on the bottle, because she finds him more fun when he drinks.
“It’s a great role. She’s fantastic,” says Nevin enthusiastically.
“She was a hard character to understand because I’m a great believer in Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step program. I know people who’ve been saved by those programs. I value them very highly. She’s got one fabulous line where she says, ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s very impressive, do you, one day at a time?’ She’s just a brute, a wonderful character. I loved it. I had a wonderful time doing that film and Brendan was wonderful directing it. It’s a quintessentially Sydney story in its outlook and tone and visually. In a way, it’s a wonderful celebration of Sydney and a terrible indictment of it at the same time.”
Anna Fierling – or Mother Courage as she is known – is yet another formidable character in Nevin’s armory (joining the likes of Miss Docker in Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul and Ana in Lally Katz’s Neigbourhood Watch). A refugee with three children and a cart, from which she sells food, liquor and other provisions, she buys and sells her way through a pointless, religious war, putting profit above all else. During the play, her three children are all killed.
Brecht wrote it in 1939 in response to the rise of fascism in Germany and Germany’s invasion of Poland.
Nevin directed the play for STC in 2006, choosing it as the first production for her newly formed ensemble, the STC Actors’ Company, with Pamela Rabe in the title role. Since then, it’s been on her bucket list of roles.
“I didn’t feel it was finished business although it was a very successful production. I loved getting to know the play and so I just thought, ‘yes, that’s a role I could one day have a go at,’” she says.
She programmed it at STC, she says, because she considers it “a great ensemble piece. It’s a very powerful piece of theatre. It’s arresting and gripping and entertaining and it’s a challenge for a company. Brecht has written it in such a way that there are 12 scenes and each scene requires a complex transition, which needs to be made slick and easy.
“In a small space, that takes a lot of time and effort and everyone is involved in that. I think audiences love watching a production unfold with ease and skill in a deft kind of way and Eamon is brilliant at that. But it’s taken an awful lot of time and it does require trust in each other. We all have to work very carefully in concert with each other, which I like about the piece itself. I like being part of a team. I’m addicted to the notion of an ensemble. I think they work, I think they’re very valuable and everybody gets better as a result of being in an ensemble production because so much is required of everyone.”
Asked whether she ever considered playing the role herself in the STC production, she gives the idea short shrift.
“I couldn’t possibly have considered playing it because I couldn’t give myself the lead role in the first play (by the STC Actors Company). The commentary from the media would have been too much for me to handle at that stage. They would have just thought it was personal vanity and I was not ambitious in that way at all. I gave opportunities to other people and rarely took the best opportunities for myself. And that was an occasion where I thought it would just look like hubris for me to lead the company in the first, inaugural production of the Actors’ Company so I directed it instead.”
Flack’s production for Belvoir features a new translation by Australian playwright Michael Gow and new songs by Stefan Gregory.
Brecht originally set the play in the 17th century during the Thirty Year War, but the Belvoir production has a contemporary setting. Nevin describes Gow’s translation as “ short, sharp and to the point. It’s got a directness, which I like. The lyrics are wonderful; the songs are fantastic….. It’s completely new compositions, it’s absolutely wonderful (music) by Stefan Gregory. He last did the entire musical score for Suddenly Last Summer. That was brilliant too.
“I don’t know how to describe (the Belvoir) production but it’s a thrill to be in it so I think it will be thrilling to see.”
An example of Brecht’s epic theatre, he wrote it to engage the audience intellectually rather than emotionally and apparently rewrote the role of Mother Courage when audiences sympathised too much with her.
Nevin says she doesn’t spend time wondering how audiences will relate to the character.
“I just play one moment at a time and one action at a time. I play the action of the scenes; the meaning will be determined by the audience. I can’t preoccupy myself with what sort of person she is. She is defined by her actions so if I play the actions then the audience will judge as they will judge. But if you want to know what I think…..” she adds with a huge laugh.
She then cites a horrendous scene, which they have just been rehearsing, in which Mother Courage’s daughter Kattrin returns having been brutally raped. Her mother tells her that she is lucky she’s not better looking or it could have been worse.
“That’s the tough job that Brecht gives the actors to do. He makes them say things that shock the audience horribly, (telling) a girl who’s just been raped that she probably would have been raped over and over if she’d been attractive enough. That’s actually what the woman is saying, and it’s hard to say, but that’s her way of dealing with it,” says Nevin.
“But in a minute she talks about Kattrin is a very different way, which shows her concern but is in no way sentimental, never sentimental. Over the course of the play she’s tough, she’s pragmatic, she’s only concerned about survival through trade even as her three children are killed.
“Brecht wrote that but he can’t stop that well of emotion, he can’t separate an audience from their humanity. (But) in a way the play is saying, ‘what good is humanity during war?’
“One of the songs really speaks to this quite clearly. It’s the Song of Solomon. One by one they describe the qualities of the great men of history and each one of them died for their good qualities: their wisdom, their courage. So what’s the point of being brave, of being wise, of telling the truth, of fearing God? So you’re playing characters who crush their better qualities in order to survive.”
Funnily enough, it’s King Lear that Nevin has been having nightmares about during Mother Courage rehearsals, rather than the Brecht.
“I’ve already had my Lear nightmare in which we were about to go on stage and I didn’t know a word, not a word. I was asking for a script and no one had one because they all knew theirs and they’d left it at home. Just terrifying! Then we went on stage and Geoffrey lay back and didn’t say a word and I thought, ‘well if he’s not going to speak, I’m not going to speak.’ It was just awful.”
Nevin laughs. “I should be having nightmares about Mother Courage, I’m already having nightmares about Lear.”
Accepting the offer to play the Fool was “a hard decision”, she says. “I don’t even know where to begin with the Fool but the thought of being in a (rehearsal) room with Neil doing a Shakespeare was exciting because I haven’t done a Shakespeare with Neil. I’ve done very few Shakespeares so that’s very exciting.”
Mother Courage and Her Children plays at Belvoir St Theatre, June 6 – July 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444
King Lear plays at Sydney Theatre, November 24 – January 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777
A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 31