The in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed prison drama is back for a sec­ond sea­son

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WHEN it ar­rived last year, Went­worth an­nounced it­self as some­thing spe­cial. It sim­ply wasn’t what many of us ex­pected; some be­lieved the idea smacked of stunt. Why would any­one want to up­date the fa­mous lo­cal soap opera called Pris­oner, set in­side the Went­worth De­ten­tion Cen­tre, a fic­tional women’s prison, first broad­cast on Ten on Fe­bru­ary 27, 1979, and run­ning to 692 episodes? Surely the orig­i­nal had mined ev­ery con­ven­tion to do with women’s pris­ons, its high-camp style was dated, and surely it was the dag­gi­est show in tele­vi­sion his­tory?

But the new ver­sion was some­thing to­tally orig­i­nal, even if the names of many of the char­ac­ters were the same, and the un­der­ly­ing through-line took some of its in­spi­ra­tion from Reg Grundy’s fa­mous se­ries. De­spite the cliches, the orig­i­nal ex­am­ined the way women dealt with in­car­cer­a­tion and sep­a­ra­tion from their fam­i­lies, with the recurring theme of re­leased in­mates drawn into re­cidi­vism. While grab­bing that no­tion, Went­worth turned out to be Pris­oner bril­liantly, imag­i­na­tively re­vived, or “reimag­ined”, by Fre­mantleMe­dia with a highly cin­e­matic HBO look for the net­work’s pres­ti­gious SoHo chan­nel.

It was a com­pelling noirish se­ries car­ry­ing a weight of preda­tori­ness and dread and, as in the best crime fic­tion, fea­tured a dis­tinct ca­pac­ity for sub­tle so­cial com­men­tary, along with a con­cern for the dis­par­ity be­tween law and jus­tice. Its de­but last year was the most watched non­sports pro­gram on Aus­tralian sub­scrip­tion TV. It has been sold to more than 20 coun­tries in­clud­ing Bri­tain, where it at­tracted more than two mil­lion view­ers each week, Croa­tia, Slove­nia, Bul­garia, France, Swe­den, Hun­gary, Poland, Scan­di­navia and New Zealand.

The Dutch ver­sion of Went­worth — called Cel­blok H — pre­miered on SBS6 in The Nether­lands in March and was the No 1 show of the day for the net­work at­tract­ing an aver­age au­di­ence of 1.2 mil­lion view­ers. A Ger­man adap­ta­tion is in pro­duc­tion.

Like Jenji Ko­han’s Or­ange is the New Black, it didn’t hes­i­tate to demon­strate the pe­nal sys­tem sets ev­ery­one up to fail. And like The Wire, to para­phrase its cre­ator David Si­mon, it was also re­ally about how people lived to­gether. About how in­sti­tu­tions have an ef­fect on in­di­vid­u­als and how, re­gard­less of what any­one is com­mit­ted to, they are ul­ti­mately com­pro­mised and must con­tend with where they find them­selves. There was the same pre­vail­ing mood of moral am­bi­gu­ity and pro­found cyn­i­cism as to the mo­tives and ef­fi­cacy of the forces of law and or­der.

More im­me­di­ately, stylised and glossy, vi­o­lent and in­tel­li­gent, it was wit­tily couched in the ver­nac­u­lar of ac­tion movies, and su­perbly di­rected by Kevin Car­lin ( Killing Time), a show that sucked you in vis­cer­ally.

Its cre­ators knew that their se­ries had to be some­thing other in tex­ture than rep­re­sen­ta­tion, had to lift past what TV had made fa­mil­iar. They gave us TV with looks to spare; style was con­tent in Went­worth and so much stronger for coex­ist­ing equally.

And it’s back for a sec­ond sea­son — the third hap­pily also in pre-pro­duc­tion — the first episode again with Car­lin at the helm, writ­ten by Pete McTighe and pho­tographed by bril­liant Craig Bar­den. And again Bar­den im­parts that al­most lurid, night­mar­ish look to the prison in­te­ri­ors, ab­stract jig­gles of harsh neon, that’s hard to get out of your mind af­ter­wards, set­ting just the right pic­to­rial con­text for Went­worth, a place of hard, sad in­car­cer­a­tion, both pur­ga­tory and a prov­ing ground.

Pro­duc­tion de­signer Rob­bie Perkins again adds to the sense of au­then­tic­ity too, with the ex­te­ri­ors of the prison yard with its ra­zor wire and the glimpses of bright blue sky where black birds cir­cle. And again the show de­liv­ers some se­ri­ously in­tense act­ing, es­pe­cially com­pared to the orig­i­nal melo­dra­matic prison soapie, which, if you’re in­ter­ested in the com­par­i­son, is still screen­ing on Fox­tel’s 111 Greats chan­nel. It will prob­a­bly run for­ever, sen­tenced to life.

Went­worth’s first sea­son ended with Danielle Cor­mack’s Bea Smith, the for­mer hair­dresser who once ran a small but prof­itable sa­lon, driven to kill Jacqueline “Jacs” Holt, the prison’s top dog, played so con­vinc­ingly by Kris McQuade. Bea’s one rea­son for sur­viv­ing — her daugh­ter, Deb­bie — is dead too, from a drug over­dose or­dered by Holt. Her im­age haunts Bea, now locked in soli­tary con­fine­ment when the sec­ond sea­son be­gins three months later, her sen­tence in­creased by 12 years, high on med­i­ca­tion and hal­lu­ci­nat­ing.

The bat­tle is on for top dog, with Ni­cole da Silva’s Francesa “Frankie” Doyle seem­ingly in con­trol, run­ning dope with the help of the brutish, phys­i­cally im­pos­ing Sue “Boomer” Jenk­ins, played com­pellingly by Ka­t­rina Milo­se­vic. But will Frankie fi­nally be ex­posed as the real killer of Cather­ine McCle­ment’s right­eous gover­nor Meg Jack­son, hard-line and un­pop­u­lar, who played a man’s role in a sys­tem that’s dom­i­nated by them?

Then there’s the new gover­nor, Joan Fer­gu­son, aka, “The Fixer”, who has ar­rived at Went­worth af­ter clean­ing up Queens­land’s Stone Park Prison; “cor­rec­tion” is her mis­sion state­ment: “So­ci­ety has deemed these women de­fec­tive and it’s our job to fix them, not in­dulge or ac­com­mo­date.”

Played by that fine ac­tress Pamela Rabe, sleek black hair pulled back into a tight bun, a gen­tly men­ac­ing smile, she is tac­i­turn, taut, amused and self-con­fi­dent.

From the first word, and she has the first word, the start of a speech about the na­ture of the job — “We ex­ist to cor­rect” — she es­tab­lishes a man­ner and voice that is si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­vinc­ing and as­sured. But there’s an un­set­tling co­quet­tish­ness about her too, some­thing a bit li­bidi­nous lurk­ing be­hind the guarded eyes and set lips.

Car­lin’s di­rec­tion cre­ates a sense of flow from the first im­ages of the gover­nor, dress­ing for com­bat, then strid­ing into her theatre of war, of steady, lux­u­ri­ous in­evitabil­ity. Car­lin’s is a be­guil­ing style, as if all the char­ac­ters are be­ing borne for­ward on a swelling stream, al­most pleas­antly, to their var­i­ous dooms. His first glimpses of scenes not only set place and scene, telling us where we are, but what the ten­sions are be­tween people and place.

The act­ing is again first rate, Rabe, one of our great stage per­form­ers, pro­vid­ing a mas­ter­class. Hers is a fierce ab­sorp­tion in the arts of act­ing; it’s easy to sense that she acts her­self into ex­is­tence, into com­plete­ness. She is thrilled by the legerde­main of act­ing, the tricks of mak­ing some­thing real, the ex­tent of con­trivance in the cre­ation of truth.

She told me once she uses a metaphor of a stained-glass win­dow and how when you look from one side all you see is sol­der­ing and how it’s put to­gether. If you walk around to the other side you see the glo­ri­ous colours. “You can see a show and have a trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence but the per­son next to you hates it,” she said. “They saw the solder marks; you saw only the colours.”

An en­gi­neer’s daugh­ter, she’s a great be­liever in the safety of ar­chi­tec­tural struc­ture for the ac­tor. She talks of mark­ers in per­for­mance: metaphor­i­cal flags, pegs or posts that an ac­tor can reach for, cre­at­ing a sense of safety and se­cu­rity if in­spi­ra­tion should fail. “You need a set of givens so that you are not floun­der­ing, not just sur­viv­ing.”

As Joan Fer­gu­son, she is to­tally ab­sorbed and she gives us a char­ac­ter in depth, cre­ated with a min­i­mal­ist tech­nique where ev­ery ges­ture, twitch and half smile con­veys mean­ing, and as a dy­namic in a web of ac­tions. This is not a cast in which it’s easy to stand out ei­ther.

The other women are uni­formly ter­rific. Celia Ire­land’s Lizzie Birdsworth car­ries some much needed pathos and ten­der­ness amid the aw­ful­ness; da Silva still steals scenes with her tat­tooed las­civ­i­ous­ness and men­ace; and Kate Atkin­son’s Vera Ben­nett has a quiv­er­ing in­ten­sity, a loner who doesn’t know how to join.

And Cor­mack has star pres­ence to burn, some­thing Joan Craw­fordish about her, a hol­low-cheeked glam­our queen turn­ing into a psy­chopath be­fore our eyes. Her great as­set is that vivid, pho­to­genic face cap­tured in close-up but she op­er­ates through a broad range of move­ment and ges­ture. She re­ally is some­thing spe­cial too.

May 17-18, 2014

The new gover­nor (Pamela Rabe) ar­rives

at Went­worth

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