September 07, 2010

An Actor Prepares

Filed under: Archive,Interviews

May 2010
Adelaide Theatre

Carmel Johnson talks with Murray Bramwell about her part in State Theatre Company’s current production of Arthur Miller’s The Price.

It has been a busy time for Carmel Johnson. One of Adelaide’s most respected and versatile actresses, she has been on a two year roller-coaster with Brink Productions’ staging of Andrew Bovell’s hit play When the Rain Stops Falling. Opening at the 2008 Adelaide Festival the production has had seasons in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra and there is a return run back in Adelaide later this year, before concluding in Alice Springs, the setting for some of its futuristic scenes.

“It has been a really interesting process,” she observes, with characteristic deadpan understatement, “and sometimes I rue the day that I took it on. Other times I think how brave it has made me. It has been a really big commitment.”

Carmel Johnson’s role as Elizabeth Law was a memorable one and her presentation of a woman bruised by shame and regret was indicative of her willingness to portray unsympathetic and unsentimental aspects of character in order to get to the truth. This capacity was also evident in her performance in State Theatre’s 2005 production of Frozen, an opportunity which she describes as “a door-opener for me” – creating opportunities for mainstage work, just as her role in Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby led to a range of film and TV work including Rabbit-Proof Fence, Rain Shadow and McLeod’s Daughters.

She also very definitely has her lighter side – as her witty contribution to Brink’s slapstick version of Moliere’s The Hypochondriac amply proved. And no-one who saw it, will ever forget her hilarious turn, beautifully costumed, as the flamboyantly dead cow in Windmill’s production for young audiences – Helly’s Magic Cup.

Carmel’ s latest part , as Esther Franz in Arthur Miller’s 1968 play The Price , is also just her cup of tea. When I spoke to her, she was just a week out from the first preview night and things were going well.

“We are fine-tuning because the language is so dense and the idiom so precise that if you put in an extra ‘and’ or ‘but’ you just mess the whole thing up. (Director) Adam Cook says he’s not worried about the acting but he is being diligent about the script. We have gone through it and planned it all out, of course.”

“It’s been a great challenge . In the cast there’s Michael Habib, Pip Miller and the wonderful Dennis Olsen. It’s good because everyone gets on so well and is so respectful of each other. If we are struggling, we are all in the same boat. No-one is pushing and saying hurry up. We all know everyone can do it – we just have to do it in our own time.”

“The Price is about two brothers. It’s sixteen years after their father has died and there is an attic full of furniture and my husband Victor has come to meet with a dealer to sell all of it. Victor’s been trying to contact his brother for many years, on and off, to get them to meet. That’s the premise. The play looks back at their life growing up in Lower East Manhattan, at how they are now and what tore their relationship apart.”

“Not many people know the play and one reason Adam picked it was that he thought it was relevant to the Global Financial Crisis. Because people do panic when retirement funds collapse and they worry about the impact on their families.

“Miller was a very ethical writer and he is concerned with how people behave – and in this play he dissects things, what one brother did, what the other did and they are both right in their own way.”

Even though she lived in the US for eleven years, this is only the second American text Carmel has done. But her three years at the legendary Stella Adler’s New York acting studio back in the late 1970s still hold her in good stead. Those sessions taught her the personal work needed- “the homework you do for yourself as an actor.”

Adler, a disciple of the Russian theorist, Konstantin Stanislavski and mentor to such famous names as Marlon Brando, was a rigorous teacher. “She was very big on truth, to stay valid and to understand the things you are playing”, Carmel recalls. “And sometimes she’d tear you apart. We would do these emotive exercises, like hugging your mother who you haven’t seen for years – and she’d shout out ‘look at your feet, they’re lying !’ ”

The Price plays at the Dunstan Playhouse until May 16.

The Adelaide Review, No 363, May, 2010. p.22.

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