Shedding light on appeal of dark side (The Age – 2 April 2013)

Shedding light on appeal of dark side (The Age – 2 April 2013)

By Cameron Woodhead

Musical theatre – US presidents under the gun
Actors thrive on challenge, Nadine Garner tells Cameron Woodhead.

Nadine Garner is best known from her varied career in television. You might remember her from the 1980s, opposite Kylie Minogue in The Henderson Kids, or a decade later as Joanna Lumley’s offsider in British comedy Class Act. And she can now be seen on ABC TV as the feisty Jean Beazley in period mystery series Doctor Blake.

This fierce and charismatic actor can dominate the stage, too. I first saw her tearing up the furniture in Jean Genet’s The Balcony at the MTC in the mid ’90s, but it is Garner’s piercing performance in Cabaret from 2003, which toured nationally, that audiences will remember. Next week, she returns to the stage for her first musical since then, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.

Sprawled on the floor in one of the many small theatres at Revolt Melbourne, where she’s rehearsing, Garner admits that cheesy Broadway shows aren’t her thing. “There’s only a limited number of musicals I’m interested in. Cabaret was a great musical because its content is so bleak, and the Sam Mendes production was particularly dark. I couldn’t do a feelgood show night after night, but I could do Cabaret for a year and still feel that we were delivering something with substance,” she says.

Garner’s attraction to the darker, more dramatic end of musical theatre couldn’t find a better vehicle than Assassins. Where Cabaret is a portrait of the doomed Weimar Republic, with looming Nazi shadows, Sondheim’s pitch-black satire of the American Dream is so confronting the Broadway run was delayed by three years in the wake of 9/11.

No wonder. It’s a hilarious and horrifying carnival that parades the many assassinations, and assassination attempts, on US presidents through history.

The show parodies America’s national anthem and its gun culture, the dark pomp of notoriety, and what happens when “lost souls who dance around the edges of society”, as Garner puts it, sink into rage and despair in a culture that sees happiness as a right rather than a responsibility.

Garner, with her striking features and restless mind, the sharp, rebellious edge to her presence, and her gift for blending ferocity and vulnerability, is perfectly cast as Sara Jane Moore, a left-wing radical who fired shots at Gerald Ford in 1975, the second attempt on that president’s life within 17 days.

With her television work full of naturalistic drama, Garner relishes such an extreme theatrical role, based on a strong but unhinged character. “It’s a pastiche,” she says, “it’s not in bounds of realism. Thank God! I’m so over naturalism. You want, as a performer, to be able to physicalise things, push things and use your imagination. Like most actors, I crave challenge and variety.”

One of the more difficult challenges for Garner is the music, which cannibalises many period styles, the barber-shop quartet among them, and contains some of Sondheim’s most academic and technically difficult compositions. “I need to be in an uncomfortable place,” Garner says, “and this is absolutely it for me.

“There’s nothing easy about the music. Some of the younger cast members keep saying ‘There are double sharps in this show!’ – and the harmonies are counter-intuitive. You can’t pick them by ear, so you just have to learn them by rote.”

It will be great to see Garner treading the boards again, and when the conversation turns to stage acting, she recalls Peter Craven’s article in The Age about how many of our best actors never get a chance to play some of the classic roles.

“In Australia, we don’t always utilise the talent we have,” she says. “When I started out in the ’80s, if you were a TV actor you didn’t get a look-in at the theatre companies. These days they do recognise the commercial viability of actors, but for many years they didn’t. I think they thought it was gauche or something.”

Another aspect of casting that concerns Garner is the white-bread standard that persists in spite of our multiculturalism: “There’s still a lot to be done in terms of colour-blind casting in this country. There’s this sense we need to represent ourselves as a white Caucasian culture. It’s especially shocking on television. We really need to grow up in that regard and I don’t know why we can’t, because Britain and America have been doing it for 20 years.”

As to future stage challenges in her career, Garner is drawn to the women of Ibsen and Chekhov. “Great roles may or may not come along, realistically,” she says, and thinks for a moment, “I’d like to have a crack at Lady Macbeth too one day.”

That’s something I’d pay to see.

Assassins opens on April 10 at FortyFiveDownstairs.

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