Robyn Nevin plays Mother Courage

Robyn Nevin has had a long, illustrious stage career, but 2015 could be one of her most memorable years yet.

Robyn Nevin with Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvill in a promotional image for Suddenly Last Summer. Photo: James Green

Robyn Nevin with Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvill in a promotional image for Suddenly Last Summer. Photo: James Green

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.”

Robyn Nevin during rehearsals for Mother Courage.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Robyn Nevin during rehearsals for Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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.

Robyn Nevin rehearses Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Robyn Nevin with Anthony Phelan in rehearsals for Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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

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David Suchet interview

In 1985, David Suchet played Inspector Japp in a film of Agatha Christie’s Thirteen at Dinner with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. Fortunately he wasn’t very good. Had he been, he may never have taken on the role of Poirot himself.

Suchet, of course, played Christie’s fastidious little Belgian detective in 74 telemovies over 25 years, winning millions of fans around the world.

In between his Poirot commitments, he returned regularly to the stage though he wasn’t able to undertake a long run. However, after Poirot’s death in the final episode last year, Suchet now has the time to tour internationally in a play by Roger Crane called The Last Confession, currently in Australia. Set in the Vatican it is billed as “a thriller” set around the sudden (some think suspicious) death of Pope John Paul I in 1978.

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Next, he plays Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” The Importance of Being Earnest in London’s West End.

During a quick media stop-over in Sydney before the start of the tour in Perth, the thoroughly charming, genial British actor took time to talk about saying goodbye to Poirot, his current role in The Last Confession, his conversion to Christianity, Twitter and the chance to play Lady Bracknell.

Jo Litson: You have talked about the end of Poirot being like saying goodbye to a dear friend. Has it been very emotional?

David Suchet: It was and it is. I can’t really be allowed to let him go at the moment because I’ve just been in this play The Last Confession in Los Angeles and Canada and the last five episodes of Poirot are just being aired there now so when I was there I was doing publicity for Poirot – and that’s a year after I’d finished the series. So, in fact, I haven’t been able to put him to rest. Maybe I’m beginning to from now.

You’ll miss him a lot presumably?

I’ll miss him very much, but he’ll always be (screening) somewhere.

What would you say if they asked you to play him in a film?

I’ve always said if there was a movie to be made of one of the stories I would consider that, because it would be like revisiting one of Agatha Christie’s stories before he died so I wouldn’t mind that. And it would be in a different medium. I’d never do him again on television.

I have been asked to do him in the theatre but my theatre career has always been very distinct and separate from Hercule Poirot. Of course, I’d be tempted to do him in the theatre but I don’t feel, with the best will in the world, that it’s right for me to bring that character into my theatre repertoire. I think it may overshadow what I’ve done in 45 years. I’ve performed in these great plays – Joe Keller in All My Sons, Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Iago in Othello, Prospero in The Tempest – and then suddenly Poirot? You’d have to ask why, wouldn’t you? So it would be for the wrong reasons.

I have to let him go. There will be other Poirots sooner rather than later, I’m sure, and I must be generous and magnanimous and wish them luck and hope they have a huge success with it. But I have to let him go in exactly the same way Sean Connery had to let James Bond go. It was his decision to let go. It’s not my decision to let go but I’ve done all the stories now, there are none left to do so that’s it, I must say goodbye.

You were in an early film when Peter Ustinov played him?

Yes, I played Inspector Japp. He (Peter Ustinov) was such a lovely man. He was so generous to me when I took over and wished me all the luck, publicly as well. But I have to say that I am only grateful that when I played Inspector Japp with Peter Ustinov that I gave such a bad performance. I’ll tell you why. Peter went on to do four or five other films after that with the same cast so if I’d been good I would have been Inspector Japp in all those other films. I would never than have been asked to play Poirot.

I believe your involvement with The Last Confession goes back to before the play premiered in Chichester in 2007?

Yes, my involvement with the play goes back even further than that. It was sent to me by another director for another company in England, I would say four years before it was sent to me again. When it was first sent to me the play was not ready. I liked it very much. I was very intrigued with its plot but the script needed working on. I only was going to be given three weeks rehearsal and I knew those three weeks rehearsal were going to be rewriting the play rather than putting on a finished piece and I said to myself, ‘no, I don’t want to do that.’

About three or four years after that it was sent to me again having been reworked by the writer and it was much, much better to the extent that I was really interested in this play now and went to New York and worked with Roger Crane on my own to develop it even further. Then the producers came on board and then we got a director and he took over that job.

Because of Poirot I only had time to do six weeks in Chichester and 10 weeks in the West End. And ever since then the producers have wanted to do it again and I’ve never been available so now that Poirot has died it’s the first time that I have suddenly been free. I wanted to do it again because I wanted to re-explore the character. I hadn’t really finished in a sense.

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Apparently it’s thanks to you that the play is touring Australia?

We were always going to go to Canada and Los Angeles and I said to Paul Elliott, our producer, I’d like to go to other English speaking countries who have supported my Poirot all these years. Can we please go to Australia and South Africa? He tried both. Australia had (theatre) vacancies and wanted it. South Africa wanted it but had no vacancies at the time so this is why I’m now here. It’s all part of my desire to come and, in a way, say “thank you”. I have a huge fan base here. When Poirot is showing in Australia I always know it’s being shown because my mail bag is huge and I get messages on Twitter saying “I’m now watching you in Sydney or Brisbane…” and it’s always such a thrill for me that my program is being watched on the other side of the world. Now that I’m in Sydney I get stopped in the street and people are so charming and I’m so pleased to be here on stage doing something completely different and, in a sense, saying thank you.

Do you do you own tweets?

I do. People are always surprised. I don’t do it that often. I don’t have that many followers for a so-called star. (He has 29,000). I get on Twitter about once a week and do a few lines here and there but at least they know it’s me. I never wanted to do Twitter. It was when I was in All My Sons in the West End, the publicity department said I had to and they offered to run my Twitter page for me. I said, “well, if I’m going to do it, I know my Poirot fans are going to want to ask questions and things like that, which you wouldn’t be able to answer so I’ll do it on my own.” I don’t get into conversations but when people say nice things I get back and say thank you.

Superficially there would seem to be some similarities between Poirot and The Last Confession: a thriller with a possible murder?

That’s publicity from a long time ago. The play is not a whodunit. To a certain extent nobody will ever know who dunit if they did do it. Pope John Paul I was found dead in his bed 33 days after starting to be the most radical, reforming pope in the history of the Catholic Church. He was everybody’s idea of the parish priest, the “smiling pope”, the people’s pope, the pope that didn’t want to be carried on a throne for his coronation. Sound familiar? Yes, sounds a bit like Pope Francis doesn’t it?

My character Giovani Benelli, an archbishop originally, was a great friend of Albino Luciani who was to become Pope John Paul I and really got his friend into the papacy. He then becomes a cardinal and his friend having become Pope is found dead in his bed. My character then feels such pain and guilt that he has this great struggle of faith. So this play is as much about the struggle of this man as an investigation into the possible causes of the untimely death of this great pope. So it’s a play that will take you into the power politics of the Vatican. Yes, we may be walking around in scarlet robes all 20 of us but you could be entering parliament.

The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

I believe your wife (Sheila Ferris) is in it?

Yes, she is playing the only female role in the play – a nun who takes care of Pope John Paul I. It’s a very long time since she was on stage, over 20 years. She gave up a wonderful career to look after our children, bless her, and this is an opportunity for her to come back, and she’s really enjoying it.

You have recorded an audio book of The Bible. That’s quite some undertaking?

Apart from being a Christian – and I do have a very strong faith – I’ve always found that The Bible is a library of books. We’ve got drama, we’ve got poetry, we’ve got allegory, we’ve got songs, we’ve got history, we’ve got everything in The Bible. As somebody said, it’s the greatest book in the world. For an actor to read it from beginning to end is massive, and it took me over 200 hours. I’m so pleased I’ve done it.

Is it true you converted to Christianity after reading a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room?

No, there wasn’t a Gideon’s Bible; that was the funny thing. My conversion to Christianity from agnosticism or almost on the edge of atheism began in a hotel room in Seattle in 1986. I was beginning to think about my late grandfather and about life after death. I thought, “I don’t believe in life after death and yet I’ve always believed my late grandfather was a spiritual guide so how can I not believe in life after death?”

I looked in the drawer beside the bed for the Gideon’s Bible and it wasn’t there so the next day I managed to get the New Testament and I started to read. I thought I’d read somebody who actually existed so I read one of the letters of Paul. I’ve always been interested in Rome so I read his letters to the Romans. The first half of the letter I didn’t understand at all but then I found a way of existing in the second half of that letter in the Book of Romans that I’d been searching for all my life: how to relate to other human beings and how to be a human being. I thought this is great and suddenly I found a worldview, suddenly I was looking through a lens that made sense to me. Then I had to discover where did Paul get this from and it was from Jesus so that led me to Christianity.

What do you do next?

I’m going to be in The Importance of being Earnest. I’m going to be playing Lady Bracknell in the West End. I follow in the great shoes of Geoffrey Rush (who played Lady Bracknell for Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011). It’s not the first time this cross-gender casting has been done. A number of actors have played Lady Bracknell and roles like Viola. And actresses – though you can’t say that anymore – have played roles like Richard II. But it’s a chance for me to embody a wonderfully written comedy role. I’m really looking forward to it. So I change from playing a cardinal to a lady. What an amazing career for an actor of my age! I’m so lucky.

The Last Confession is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, August 27 – 31; Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, September 3 – 21; and Theatre Royal, Sydney, September 24 – October 5.

This interview was conducted on behalf of the Sunday Telegraph where a story ran on August 10

Helpmann Awards

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sydney Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of The Secret River was the big winner at the 2013 Helpmann Awards, receiving six awards from 11 nominations including Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Neil Armfield) and Best New Australian Work.

Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel was a popular choice at last night’s ceremony at the Sydney Opera House, hosted by Eddie Perfect and Christie Whelan Browne.

However, the musical category has caused a fair amount of discussion on social media, with some believing that South Pacific was unjustly snubbed.

King Kong – the new musical from Global Creatures – had been portrayed in some sections of the media as the main rival to The Secret River in terms of its potential to sweep the awards.

But it was Legally Blonde that took out the main awards in the musicals category, winning five from eight nominations including Best Musical (over South Pacific, The Addams Family and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Best Direction and Best Choreography in a Musical (Jerry Mitchell) and performing awards for Lucy Durack and Helen Dallimore.

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Tellingly, King Kong was not nominated for Best Musical or Best Direction of a Musical – and rightly so, I would suggest, for a show that most critics agree needs more work on its book.

However, King Kong picked up four design awards (though Marius de Vries’ original music lost out to Iain Grandage’s for The Secret River.)

The show was also given a special award for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement for the design, creation and operation of King Kong – the creature. Apparently there was genuine discussion at one point as to whether King Kong himself could actually be nominated as best performer. He is certainly truly extraordinary but since he is a puppet, common sense prevailed.

Technically King Kong was not eligible for consideration at this year’s awards since it had its opening night on June 15 after the cut-off date of May 31. However, the rules allow for late inclusions in “exceptional circumstances” and given the relatively weak field of musicals over the last year, the decision to include it was presumably made to bolster the field.

For my money, Bartlett Sher’s production of South Pacific – presented by Opera Australia in association with John Frost – was the best musical of the year. Of course, that’s a subjective view, however, it did win Best Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards over Legally Blonde, Love Never Dies and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There’s also the question of whether a revival should be judged against a new musical, let alone a new Australian musical, and whether we should be giving Best Musical awards anyway to shows that are carbon copies of overseas productions, regardless of how well we perform them. (We could still give awards for performances in a musical).

Among the four nominees for Best Musical this year, only John Frost’s Forum (seen in Melbourne) was a new production created in Australia.

The Helpmann Awards have always been a curious beast. Trying to create live entertainment awards with a national reach in such a vast country where few voters have seen all the nominations in any given category is always going to be a challenge with the inevitable oddities and anomalies occurring as a result. (People can only vote in a category if they have seen at least two nominations.)

There is probably more chance of voters having seen all the nominations in the musicals category than any other as most of them tour nationally – as Legally Blonde and South Pacific did.

There seemed to be a few curious omissions among the nominations this year. With no disrespect to any of the nominated performers, it seemed strange, for example, that none of the cast of South Pacific were nominated despite the production being up for Best Musical.

Such oversights have happened before (remember when Cate Blanchett failed to gain a nomination for her stellar performance in A Streetcar Named Desire).

For me there were one or two others this year but it is inappropriate to name names when, again, these things are so subjective.

Partly I’m sure that this is the result of trying to ensure a broad geographical spread of nominations (though there are always complaints that Sydney and Melbourne are over-represented) and partly because it is the producers who put forward the nominations in the first place, paying a $50 fee per entry.

You can’t help thinking that there must be at least some element of strategy as to who and what a producer nominates in order to raise the profile of a show or a performer.

I have also always found it odd that the Helpmanns give awards for Best International Contemporary Concert. This year Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Wrecking Ball won over Coldplay, Barry Gibb and Tedeschi Trucks Band & Trombone Shorty. Doubtless the producing team and their staff work extremely hard to make these tours happen but surely the Helpmann Awards should be about honouring and supporting Australian entertainment.

Among other major awards, Geoffrey Rush won Best Male Actor in a Musical for Forum, Colin Friels won Best Male Actor in a Play for Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman, Alison Bell (who had two nominations in the one category) won Best Female Actor in a Play for Hedda Gabler at the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Opera Australia’s Salome won four opera awards, while Bangarra Dance Theatre collected two.

With 43 categories, it was a loooong night running around four hours. The entertainment helped maintain interest notably Tim Minchin singing “When I Grow Up” from Matilda the Musical, and performances by the casts of Grease and Hot Shoe Shuffle, among others.

For a full list of awards go to: www.helpmannawards.com.au

Disclaimer: Jo Litson is one of the industry voters for the Helpmann Awards.