THE FACE

MICHAEL DAVIS meets ESSIE DAVIS AC­TOR

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

TAKE any scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in­volv­ing Essie Davis and you re­alise why di­rec­tor Gale Ed­wards pur­sued the Tas­ma­nian- born ac­tor to play Mag­gie in the Mel­bourne The­atre Com­pany pro­duc­tion of the Ten­nessee Wil­liams clas­sic.

Al­though there is no phys­i­cal re­sem­blance be­tween Davis and El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor, who im­mor­talised the role when she played op­po­site Paul New­man in the 1958 Hol­ly­wood film, Davis gives an equally charis­matic per­for­mance.

A ded­i­cated fan of Wil­liams’s writ­ing, Davis won a Lau­rence Olivier Award for her 2002 per­for­mance in an­other of his plays, as Stella op­po­site Glenn Close’s Blanche in A Street­car Named De­sire at Lon­don’s Na­tional The­atre. ‘‘ She ( Close) is a re­ally dy­namic and amaz­ing ac­tress,’’ Davis says. ‘‘ At first it was a bit ter­ri­fy­ing. But we formed an in­cred­i­bly com­pli­cated sis­ter­hood on stage and we be­came very close. It was great.’’

Ac­cord­ing to Davis, a grad­u­ate of Syd­ney’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Dra­matic Art, work­ing on stage with Close un­der the di­rec­tor­ship of Trevor Nunn helped pro­pel her ca­reer to a new level. She ranks the ex­pe­ri­ence of per­form­ing in Nunn’s Street­car as one of two high points in her sub­stan­tial stage and film ca­reer. The other was the lead­ing role she played as Dotty in a pro­duc­tion of Tom Stop­pard’s Jumpers. The play’s sea­son was ex­tended for al­most two years in Lon­don and New York, and along the way earned Davis a Tony nom­i­na­tion.

Ear­lier this year she com­pleted film­ing Baz Luhrmann’s Aus­tralia with Nicole Kid­man and Hugh Jack­man. Her other film cred­its in­clude the Ma­trix movies, Hey Hey It’s Es­ther Blue­burger, Char­lotte’s Web, Iso­la­tion and, par­tic­u­larly notably, Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring, in which she played the sus­pi­cious wife of artist Jan Ver­meer ( Colin Firth) in the screen ver­sion of the Tracy Che­va­lier novel.

Af­ter winning the Olivier in 2003, Davis, who is mar­ried to Aus­tralian film di­rec­tor Justin Kurzel, re­turned to Syd­ney for the birth of twin daugh­ters Stella and Ruby.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sig­nals Davis’s re­turn to the stage af­ter the twins’ birth and marks her de­but with the MTC. But Davis re­mains un­cer­tain about whether her fu­ture lies here or else­where. ‘‘ I’m torn be­tween bring­ing the girls up here and pur­su­ing a ca­reer over­seas,’’ she says. She also har­bours un­cer­tainty over whether there is enough act­ing work on of­fer in Aus­tralia to sat­isfy her ca­reer needs.

For the time be­ing the twins will travel the world with their par­ents. ‘‘ Justin sup­ports me in my ca­reer and I sup­port him,’’ Davis says.

De­spite the at­trac­tions of the jet­set­ting life, Aus­tralia’s life­style and es­pe­cially the tran­quil­lity of Ho­bart, where she was born and stud­ied at uni­ver­sity, has a spe­cial ap­peal for Davis. It’s hard not to sus­pect she will even­tu­ally be drawn back to Tas­ma­nia to rear her fam­ily.

For the mo­ment, though, she is stun­ning audiences with her por­trayal of Mag­gie at Mel­bourne’s Arts Cen­tre Play­house.

To pre­pare for the role, Davis im­mersed her­self in the play and Wil­liams’s life story. She de­scribes him as an ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­plex char­ac­ter who wrote bravely and pro­foundly given the mores of the 1950s in the US’s ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive deep south.

‘‘ Mag­gie is fe­ro­cious, volup­tuous, sexy, soft, in­cred­i­bly loving and very, very on the ball,’’ Davis says.

‘‘ She’s knowl­edge­able and in­cred­i­bly tol­er­ant of what­ever it is that her hus­band ( Brick, played by Martin Hen­der­son) has prob­lems with. She loves him un­con­di­tion­ally and will fight for him in ev­ery pos­si­ble way.

‘‘ She’s also very mod­ern and front- footed, doesn’t care whether he’s gay or al­co­holic, loves him any­way, and wants him con­stantly.

‘‘ Mag­gie’s also a woman who’s des­per­ate to have a child and she’s in the in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing, tor­tu­ous place of be­ing pun­ished in their re­la­tion­ship for hav­ing an af­fair with Brick’s true love, his best friend, his mate.’’

The tor­tured, al­co­hol- fu­elled sex­u­al­ity at the heart of the play re­flects Wil­liams’s life: in the same way as Brick, the play­wright was ho­mo­sex­ual and an al­co­holic.

‘‘ There’s a lot of Ten­nessee Wil­liams in all his char­ac­ters and Brick is no ex­cep­tion. There’s also a lot of him in the fe­male char­ac­ters; he was a very com­plex per­son,’’ Davis says.

In the play, Brick, golden boy col­lege foot­ball star and son of a wealthy south­ern fam­ily, is so dis­gusted with the pos­si­bil­ity he is ho­mo­sex­ual that he lies to him­self about it.

He is not in love with Mag­gie, who was his team’s mas­cot and cheer­leader dur­ing his foot­ball- play­ing days.

‘‘ I think they had great com­pan­ion­ship and friend­ship, and great sex. But Skip­per, his best friend, was his true love,’’ Davis says.

Mag­gie and Big Daddy ( Bricks’ fa­ther, played by Chris Hay­wood) don’t care whether Brick is gay. They love him any­way. They just want him to live, but Brick is drink­ing him­self to death, Davis says.

Over­bear­ing mil­lion­aire Big Daddy, who is dy­ing from can­cer but be­lieves he’s in per­fect health, wants to save Brick and stop him be­ing an al­co­holic. Com­pli­cat­ing the is­sue are his elder son Gooper ( Grant Piro) and daugh­ter- in- law Mae ( Re­bekah Stone), who are se­cretly schem­ing to se­cure their in­her­i­tance.

As Mag­gie fights to win back her hus­band and pre­serve the fam­ily for­tune, Big Daddy learns the painful truth about his ill­ness and the shock­ing se­cret be­hind Brick’s sullen and abu­sive be­hav­iour. ‘‘ It’s a tor­tu­ous play about hu­man re­la­tion­ships,’’ Davis says. ‘‘ I think we can all still learn from it to­day.’’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Arts Cen­tre Play­house in Mel­bourne un­til Septem­ber 13. Michael Davis is a jour­nal­ist in The Aus­tralian’s Mel­bourne bureau.

Pic­ture: Tim Carrafa

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