News & Commentary, Stage

Pamela Rabe on women in the theatre, Jumpy and Jane

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When April de Angelis’s Jumpy premiered on the West End in 2012, Guardian critic Lyn Gardner asked: “how often do you get a West End play that’s intelligent, funny and puts contemporary mid-life women centre stage?” The play follows Hilary, a 50-year-old woman dealing with her difficult adolescent daughter and trying to reconcile her feminist roots with her creeping conservatism. And it dares to cover that rarely mentioned reality in the theatre — menopause.
It’s not the type of content which dominates stages around the world, but director and actor Pamela Rabe (known best for her work in the theatre and as Joan “the Freak” Ferguson in Foxtel’s Wentworth) is confident it will find its audience in Australia.
“I think people are actually quite hungry for these stories and it’s kind of been borne out by the response,” she says. “It’s selling like hotcakes just based on its lead actors and subject matter.”
Rabe is currently directing the play for Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company, with a hugely diverse cast led by Kath and Kim star Jane Turner, Brenna Harding from Puberty Blues, and musical theatre leading lady Marina Prior.
“It just happened that way,” says Rabe. “I think that says something about the world that April De Angelis has written, and the people in this central character’s life — people who are coming at her from all angles. So it just ended up when we were casting the best people for the roles that they came with lots of different skillsets and experiences and energy.”
Fresh out of her season playing Margaret Thatcher in David Williamson’s Rupert, Turner is taking on one of her biggest roles in years, and there’s not a frizzy perm in sight.
“She’s a gorgeous woman,” Rabe says. “We all take our job very seriously, and for Jane this is a big departure from the type of material which she is most closely associated with. Even for her, playing a central role — it’s a character that never leaves the stage.”
Rabe was approached by MTC and STC to direct the play, and says she immediately jumped at the opportunity to work with both companies again, in spite of a busy schedule which sees her begin rehearsals for the Adelaide Festival’s Beckett Triptych during the previews of Jumpy. She knew of the play when she was approached, but hadn’t previously read it.
“It’s heart-breaking, actually. It’s very clever writing and its comedy comes out of the audience’s recognition of the potential tragedy in just raising kids. It questions what it is to be a woman and a feminist — how do you hold on to feminism with the encroaching conservatism of watching your children transition to womanhood?”
While Australian audiences have seen more and more works from female playwrights in recent years, many local theatre companies are still programming seasons which are predominately by male writers. The situation on the West End is no better and Broadway is substantially worse. As just one example of the gender inequality is the 2013-14 Broadway season, which saw only two plays by female writers get up in the commercially-driven world of Broadway theatre. This is despite the fact that all four finalists for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama were written by women.
Rabe says there was a major step forward in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was in power, and both male and female playwrights were writing about the nature of women’s roles, authority and power. Out of that grew a new generation of playwrights internationally, such as Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane, and locally Hannie Rayson, Katherine Thompson and Joanna Murray-Smith. She says there seem to be a lot of writers shifting their focus back to women’s stories.
“Writers from that generation are starting to focus again on the particular stories of women across several ages, but particularly middle-aged women. Women who are starting to confront notions of their sexual currency as well as their political and social currency. It’s not just women who are running countries or global corporations — these are often women who are trying to keep their home life together.”
[box]Jumpy is in Melbourne from January 31 to March 14 and then Sydney from March 26 to May 16. Featured image: Director Pamela Rabe with David Tredinnick and Jane Turner, photo by Deryk McAlpin [/box]

2 responses to “Pamela Rabe on women in the theatre, Jumpy and Jane

  1. I’m already standing to applaud Jumpy and Pamela Rabe. We are hungry for this in the US, too!! Would be truly wonderful if you could bring your production of this to us.
    Sincerely, from a woman and a feminist.
    Sandy Piacente

  2. I missed seeing this production, it would have been amazing… all of Pamela’s work has been, really riveting & always has me holding my breathe… I’m looking forward to seeing more from Pamela, amazing talent & a beauty of spirit…

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