THE QUIET ACHIEVER
WHEN Justine Clarke takes a seat in the glass-walled outdoor space at Sydney’s The Wharf for lunch, you half expect a platoon of screaming pint-size fans to launch themselves at the actress’s ankles. A quiet, self-deprecating figure in a polka dot top, the versatile Clarke — stage, film and television star, author, Play School presenter, jazz singer, ARIA-award winner — has been billed, after all, as Australia’s leading solo female children’s entertainer, an instantly recognisable cult figure firmly entrenched in toddler consciousness alongside the Wiggles and High Five. “A lot of kids come up and say hi,” she says with a smile as she takes a break in rehearsals for the Sydney Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun.
Today, however, it’s time to focus on that other Clarke, the respected, if underacknowledged thespian who has been in a main stage play almost every second year during the past 15 or so years, who has played everything from a frizzy-haired romantic rival to a morally conflicted French noblewoman to a young woman descending the rabbit hole of madness, whose directness, naturalism and simplicity on stage has been lauded by the likes of Andrew Upton, Robyn Nevin, Marion Potts and Cate Blanchett. (Blanchett also has said she’s “very funny”.) Clarke was once written up in a New Yorker review as having blown Blanchett off the stage in Hedda Gabler. She grins when this latter feat is mentioned. “It’s nice to read a good review,” she says with typical understatement.
In the flesh, Clarke is fine-boned and blonde with a rubbery, mobile mouth, a warm and mellifluous voice (Upton describes it as “beautifully resonant”) and a thoughtful, reflective air a world away from the chirpy, bouncy sunniness of her children’s TV persona.
Today, we’re meeting to discuss her debut as Yelena in Gorky’s little-performed 1905 play Children of the Sun, STC artistic director Upton’s fifth adaptation of a 19th-century Russian classic after Gorky’s Philistines, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard and Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard.
She says she was afflicted with early nerves at having to front up to a powerhouse female cast that included Helen Thomson and Jacqueline McKenzie (she “idolised” both actresses growing up); it is characteristic that the modest Clarke should feel awe despite her own respected body of work. She smiles sheepishly and says: “I think I have to get over this thing of … not intimidation, but” — she does a mock salaam — “this deference thing.”
Four weeks into rehearsal and she’s doing a brilliant job putting flesh on the bones of her curiously elusive character, according to director Kip Williams. “Her Yelena is a beacon of integrity and grace. Seeing Justine play opposite Helen and Jacqueline is a treat. The three of them are at the top of their game and each pushes the other to greater heights.”
Playwright and political activist Gorky wrote Children of the Sun while briefly imprisoned at St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress during the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. Ostensibly set during an 1862 cholera episode, it was widely understood to refer to the volatile political climate of day; during its Moscow premiere, the audience panicked when they mistook the noise of an offstage mob for the building being stormed. A tragicomic political allegory in which Gorky attacks the intelligentsia as well as the political establishment (the title refers to “the aristocrats of reason and intellect who endeavour to make life good and beautiful for all”, wrote a New York Times special correspondent in Berlin in 1905 after attending a reading of the work by the playwright), it examines the tensions in Russian society leading to the Bolshevik Revolution. At its centre is the blindly selfobsessed chemist Protasov, orbited by his lost wife Yelena, his all-seeing, sickly sister Liza, the lovelorn Melaniya and a cast of other oddballs. (Upton describes them as “a group of over-indulged kidults”.) Up for dissection is everything from the role of science to the lack of political leadership: “lots of big ideas”, Clarke says with relish, and with plenty of “contemporary resonance”, Upton adds.
Upton’s adaptation debuted in a well-received production last year directed by longtime collaborator Howard Davies at the National Theatre. It has been tweaked for this smaller STC cast, but otherwise retains its colloquial, contemporary framework. (“This one isn’t too bad, there are only three f..ks,” Clarke says cheekily.) She’s a huge fan of Upton’s writing, having been in his 1999 Cyrano de Bergerac and 2004 Hedda Gabler adaptations, saying its musicality and “looseness” give actors creative licence to experiment.
Gorky has been termed the poor man’s Chekhov, considered lumpy and raw against Chekhov’s structured elegance, but Upton is a fan, saying Gorky’s writing voice has an “incredible veracity” that captures the inchoate sense of urgency of those pre-revolutionary times. Of Clarke, he is equally effusive: her key qualities include “a great graciousness and an acute intelligence. Perhaps most importantly in her armoury of strengths for the role of Yelena, is her natural warmth. There is something inherently faithful about Justine that allows the dilemma of Yelena to be felt and believable.”
Born in Sydney in November 1971, Clarke is one of Australia’s most versatile entertainers. The daughter of a booking agent and a former Shakespearean actress turned Tivoli dancer, her first TV starring role was in a Humphrey B. Bear biscuits commercial at 7. Her first key film role came at 14 as Anna Goanna in 1985’s Max Max Beyond Thunderdome; in the 1980s, she shot to TV teen star fame as the scheming Roo Stewart in Home and Away. But “freaked out” by an early midlife career crisis and discomfited by public fame, she enrolled at the Victorian College of the Arts “because I knew I wasn’t very good and I wanted to improve my acting skills”.
In the decades since, she has become a rarity in Australian entertainment, having successfully made the transition from teen star to adult actor, sustained a parallel singing career, straddled the divide between mainstream acting and children’s entertainment and worked regularly during three decades across film (Blackrock, Look Both Ways), television ( Wildside, The Surgeon, Love My Way, The Time of Our Lives) and theatre. The last field has proved a rich hunting ground: her credits range from 1996’s Stiffs, to A Kind of Reunion and Alaska, The Wonderful World of Dissocia, Toy Symphony, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and, of course, Hedda Gabler. Williams says: “There is a purity to the way Justine creates a character. She is remarkably unaffected in performance, and she has this extraordinary capacity to remain open and playful at all times. A problem will crop up in rehearsals and she will solve it mid-performance with the most effortless truth.” Her standout performance came playing Thea Elvsted in Hedda Gabler. Reviewing the celebrated Brooklyn Academy of Music 2006 tour, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als hailed her performance as “sensational”, going on to say “Clarke is a superlative Thea. Blanchett is no match for her subtlety and heart.”
So how did the teen soapie star who once described herself as “just a dropout” (she didn’t graduate from high school or drama school) and who once said she could never rest on her laurels because “I never feel I’ve nailed anything” become one of Australian entertainment’s most enduring quiet achievers? She smiles, embarrassed, at being described as a “triple threat” (“God, I don’t know which three areas they are — it’s certainly not dancing!”) and says she made a conscious decision in her 20s to pursue roles across different fields to avoid being pigeonholed: “I was very aware of this because I love being able to work in theatre and film and TV as well as children’s entertainment. I don’t see why there’s any reason you can’t, although there aren’t many performers out there doing it.”
She acknowledges the impact of the “very privileged platform” of Play School (being approached to audition back in 1999 “was like winning the lottery”) in launching her children’s entertainment career. The seeds were sown when she recorded some songs by Play School musicians Peter Dasent and Arthur Baysting that had been turned down by the show. They decided to make an album and the result was her platinum 2005 CD I Like to Sing followed by three other bestsellers, including last year’s A Little Day Out, which won an ARIA award for best children’s album. It also has spawned a successful children’s concert career.
Clarke juggles all this with a frenetic family life. She has three children — Josef, Nina and Max — with actor Jack Finsterer, whom she met in Cyrano de Bergerac, and has always worked around her family commitments: performing five months pregnant in the STC’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, taking the kids to New York for the five-week season of Hedda, and managing to fit in school pick-ups and drop-offs during shows when possible. (She’s grateful for the support of Blanchett and Upton in offering her roles at the STC.) So how does she do it? “With a lot of help! No nanny but my family, my husband. And I guess constantly asking myself why am I doing it, who am I doing it for, and that can help me stay in control of it all.”
Justine Clarke: big ideas’
a ‘very privileged platform’