THE QUIET ACHIEVER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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.”

School:

Play

Jus­tine Clarke: big ideas’

‘Lots of

Clarke on

a ‘very priv­i­leged plat­form’

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