RAISING THE BAR
The internationally acclaimed prison drama is back for a second season
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