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Nuclear family:
Pamela Rabe and Sarah Peirse

Meet the female tour de force behind Sydney Theatre Company's latest production.

On stage together for the first time in nearly 30 years, Pamela Rabe and Sarah Peirse, the stars of Lucy Kirkwood's The Children explore their shared past and our dangerous future with arts and culture writer Maxim Boon.

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.

"It’s really reframing the female experience towards a more essential and central determining role, rather than something more passive..."

Sarah Peirse

Sarah Peirse and Pamela Rabe. Image: Jeff Busby

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.

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.

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, ninety-nine 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.

Read the full article by Maxim Boon in Audrey Journal.

Playwright Lucy Kirwood on the birth of The Children...

I had been trying to find a form for a long time to write about climate change in a way that was emotionally rather than intellectually driven. What is important and theatrical to me is not the facts of climate change – we all know the facts now, and most of the average theatre audience will believe in them too. What is interesting is this: if we know the facts, why are we failing so catastrophically to change our behaviours?

Well, for one thing, it’s because those changes are enormous and frightening and demand that we give up things we have all come to feel we are entitled to. The scale of such a change can only feel like a death of sorts, and as Hazel says, who would consciously want to move towards their own death?

I wanted to write something that didn’t harangue or nag an audience, but was generous, honest and unsentimental about how difficult it will be to make the changes that we need to, about how overwhelming that might feel – an awakening perhaps, but a terrifying one. The idea you can do nothing because the disaster is already too large is an infantilising one (one of the many reasons for the title), and the play is about three people growing up into active agents. And of course the way in which they do that was very much inspired by what happened at Fukushima. When I heard about the heroism of the retired work-force returning to the plant to help with the clean up, lots of different and long gestating ideas started to finally come together for me.

Continue reading at sydneytheatre.co.au.

“The idea you can do nothing because the disaster is already too large is an infantilising one...”

Lucy Kirwood

Sarah Peirse and William Zappa. Image: Jeff Busby

Director Sarah Goodes sets the scene

"Well, they're in a very small cottage in England, somewhere on the east coast. It's not a place you would normally live. It's a place where you'd holiday or it might have been a fisherman's cottage. There’s been a natural disaster that has damaged a nuclear reactor, so Robin and Hazel have had to move to this cottage because their family home was inside the exclusion zone. Their four children are grown up, living away.

"Both Robin and Hazel worked at the nuclear reactor as nuclear scientists with the third character Rose, but they haven't seen Rose for 20 years. The play starts with Rose appearing at their door all of a sudden.

"Hazel knows that Rose and Robin were involved with each other before she and Robin had their first child. So, there’s this palpable tension about why Rose has shown up after all this time."

Read the full Q&A in Sydney Theatre Company's online magazine.

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