From one of the great tragedies of 20th century theatre to one of the most perfect musicals ever written, Robyn Nevin will be running the emotional gamut in her next two productions.
A grande dame of Australian theatre, Nevin is currently at Sydney Theatre Company rehearsing Arthur Miller’s powerful classic All My Sons, which begins previewing on Saturday.
She then moves straight onto My Fair Lady, directed by Julie Andrews for Opera Australia and John Frost – which will doubtless be a tonic after the emotional toll of All My Sons.
“The play is a beautifully constructed tragedy, the playing out of which leaves us as actors pretty shattered,” admits Nevin.
“But there is also inspiration and deep satisfaction. Giving the work of a great writer to a different audience at each performance, and giving everything, is what sustains me.”
All My Sons is set in 1946 in the backyard of the Keller family. They appear to be a fine example of the American dream. Patriarch Joe Keller is a successful manufacturer, while his wife Kate keeps house. But there is something rotten at the heart of the family.
Kate clings to the hope that their son Larry, missing in action for three years, will return home. When their other son Chris arrives saying he wants to marry Larry’s girlfriend Ann Deever, a tragic series of revelations and events is set in motion.
“The play is basically about denial and secrets and how that corrodes individuals and families,” says Nevin who plays Kate to John Howard’s Joe.
“(Miller) wrote it as a 30-year old man and it was only his second play. They are clearly themes he felt very deeply about and it must have been very raw at the time, after the Second World War – but you know we’re always at war, it seems, and we are always losing soldiers and losing loved ones. Australia has been amazingly fortunate that we haven’t been at war on (home) land and we haven’t had a civil war but still (war) has taken its toll,” says Nevin.
“There’s so much more emphasis now on returned soldiers and the devastation that’s caused (in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder) to all who serve. That’s only just touched on in the play because it wasn’t examined in those days. But it is a presence in the play because one son has come back from the war and is embittered about his own country because of the fact that – as happened after the Vietnam War – the soldiers who returned were almost ignored as if nothing had changed in the world that they came back to. People didn’t understand the level of their devastation at all.”
Nevin describes Miller’s writing as “so strong, very simple and beautifully structured with wonderful rhythms. They are so authentic. You feel very supported by the structure of the play and the storytelling and the power of the plot. The characters are so beautifully written and so distinct from each other. It’s terrific to do a play like that because you can kind of sink into it. It stretches you and it forces you to work to your fullest, to exercise the muscle, but it’s also very supportive.”
The production is directed by Kip Williams, who directed Nevin in last year’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, staged with a huge video screen showing both live and pre-recorded footage.
“Kip and I had an odd time on Suddenly Last Summer because he was really directing for cameras so I feel this is like a new experience. I don’t feel that we worked so closely before. He’s the politest, sweetest man,” she says.
The chance to perform opposite John Howard was a big drawcard. “I haven’t worked with John for such a long time,” says Nevin. “He’s terrific: such a powerful presence on stage. It’s fabulous. The last time he worked here (at STC) was when I directed him in (Tony McNamara’s 2000 play) The Recruit. I also directed him in The Philadelphia Story (in 1986). I’ve known John since he first got out of NIDA and it’s great to have him back at Sydney Theatre Company.”
Nevin says that these days she has to be “much more wary than in earlier decades” when tackling such emotionally devastating material.
“I used to automatically plunge in. Now I’m much more careful about myself. I still have to plunge in. I have to go there. I have to feel what the character feels and imagine what the character is going through. I do that to the nth degree and that does take its toll. That means I have to be even more careful about myself and my mental, emotional and physical health,” she says.
When she’s not working, Nevin and her partner actor/writer Nicholas Hammond (who played Friedrich in the film of The Sound of Music) spend time in the Southern Highlands, south of Sydney.
“My life is very simple. I go out very rarely. We go to the country and that is an oasis of peace and calm and nature. We’ve got sheep. It’s very restorative,” she says.
In My Fair Lady, Nevin will play Mrs Higgins, society mother of Professor Henry Higgins – a prospect that clearly excites her enormously.
“I think it’s going to be wonderful,” she says citing the “beauty, scale and richness of the music and those wonderful lyrics that make you weep with joy, they are so witty.
“I always wanted to be able to sing so to be inside that musical beauty will be very thrilling, actually,” she says. “My character doesn’t come on for ages until the Ascot scene so I’ll be able to hear them singing when I’m in the dressing room. Imagine that thrill. I’ll be like a groupie!”
Nevin is also excited about working with Julie Andrews and says they have had “a lively conversation” about the musical.
“I’ve met her before with Nicholas but not in a way that enabled a one-on-one conversation. We talked about the piece, we talked about Shaw (on whose play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady is based) because I have directed Shaw. We talked about the musicality of it and the issues. She’s completely charming, of course,” says Nevin.
In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the original Broadway production, as well as OA’s 60th birthday, Andrews is recreating the 1956 production in which she co-starred opposite Rex Harrison, playing cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle – the role that catapulted her to international stardom.
Oliver Smith’s set design and Cecil Beaton’s costumes will be recreated, with new choreography from Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli.
“I think she’s got an excellent team lined up and the designs and costumes are just extraordinary. I don’t agree with some commentary I read the other day about it being an old-fashioned museum piece and why would you want to resurrect that old production?” says Nevin.
“Well, it’s because it’s exquisite and true to itself. It has its own integrity and a lot of people will appreciate that. I think it will be a winner.”
All My Sons, Roslyn Packer Theatre until July 9. Bookings: 02 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au. My Fair Lady, Sydney Opera House, August 30 – November 5. Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com
A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 29