MICHAEL DAVIS meets ESSIE DAVIS ACTOR
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.