Actress and playwright Kate Mulvany survived a rare childhood cancer resulting from her conscripted father’s exposure to Agent Orange. By Steve Dow.

Kate Mulvany plays on

Kate Mulvany
Kate Mulvany
Credit: Sally Flegg

Five o’clock each morning, her father wakes her. The child gets on the boat, her dad places a lifejacket over her pyjamas, and they go crayfishing. Kate’s job is to hunt for the cackers, the crayfish judged undersized when measured against a beer can. If the baby crays fail to reach the emu’s beak in the Emu Export logo, she throws them back in the water.

Back home, she goes to bed for 20 minutes, wakes again and goes to school. Kate is a very good student: she is allowed to leap a grade. In her primary years, in 1980s Geraldton, a remote mid-west-coast iron ore port town 424 kilometres north of Perth, she gets bullied a lot, and guesses that’s because she has no hair, due to the Wilms’ tumour, a rare childhood kidney cancer she was diagnosed with at age three.

Death surrounds her from the start. Her “spunky best friend” in the next hospital bed, an eight-year-old named Rebecca, dies.

Mulvany is an introvert who learns to put on a show. Mimicking British TV buffoon Frank Spencer or Monty Python characters disarms the nurses with their painful needles, and distracts the tough kids. In Geraldton, there are just two television stations, but Kate Mulvany wants to perform, even though early on she fails theatre studies.

“You’re getting out of this town,” says her mother, Glenys, a teacher of English who sculpts her daughter’s dreams. Glenys is not worried about patchy employment prospects. She has triaged this child through the removal of a tumour, a kidney, a ureter and an adrenal gland.

Kate’s parents have watched her being held down for chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which atrophied most of her left back muscles and half her spinal vertebrae – setting her up for a lifetime of bone fractures, and the impossibility of carrying any pregnancy to term.

Her father, Danny, a £10 Pom, was sent to Nui Dat in 1969, conscripted to fight for Australia. It took years for it to become apparent that the Wilms’ tumour found in his daughter is the legacy of his exposure to the masses of Agent Orange sprayed in Vietnam as a defoliant. After Kate’s birth, Glenys suffered four known miscarriages before she gave birth to their second, healthy daughter, Tegan.

The dark mass in Kate’s body was meant to prove terminal, but at 15, in 1993, already finishing year 12, she found herself relatively well and waiting expectantly as her Geraldton teachers canvassed future prospects for their students. “Hands up who’s working in the mines,” the teachers asked. “Hands up who’s taking over the farm. Who’s taking over the boats? Who’s going to TAFE? All right: there’s your forms.”

Mulvany and a couple of her friends asked, “What if you want to go to uni?” Her teachers hadn’t thought of that option. At 16, Mulvany went to Perth’s Curtin University, graduating in 1997 with a bachelor of arts, a double major in theatre and scriptwriting.

At 19, she drove across the Nullarbor in her Mazda 121 for her first acting job in Sydney. At 20, she began writing The Seed, initially a novel, which won Belvoir St Theatre’s $10,000 Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award in 2004. There’s a character named Danny, a traumatised Vietnam veteran, and his Australian daughter, Rose, the next generation suffering the war’s impact.

The story required several years of fresh, honest conversation between Mulvany and her father about his experiences: the post-traumatic stress and depression, the seizures, driving the car into a house during one whiteout. Counselling for him was never on the radar during Mulvany’s childhood.

Her play was performed at Belvoir in 2007 and 2008, and she has just finished a third draft for a feature film. Mulvany is a patron of Agent Orange Justice, deeply concerned with the children and grandchildren born with defects to those exposed to the chemical. She goes to Vietnam when she can, and is searching for some artful way of documenting the essence of these children beyond their disfigurement and disability.

When she is on stage, she forgets her own chronic, inherited pain, although she is known to have popped a rib in a dynamic turn as Lady Macbeth, in 2012. She has only missed one performance in her life, for the flu.

Mulvany has an extraordinary year ahead: she has adapted Craig Silvey’s novel of an outcast Indigenous boy, Jasper Jones, for separate productions at Belvoir St this January and Melbourne Theatre Company in August. She’s been in touch with Silvey, and fleshed out the female characters, and in the Belvoir production will take the role of Charlie Bucktin’s embittered mother.

The two productions will take vastly different approaches by directors Anne-Louise Sarks and Sam Strong respectively, with different casts; probably younger lead actors in the latter. Set in a remote Western Australian town in 1965, against a background of the Vietnam War, Mulvany was understandably drawn to the story, recalling racist attitudes growing up. (Separately, Rachel Perkins will direct a film adaption written by Silvey in November.)

Midyear, Mulvany will star in Justin Fleming’s The Literati, a 21st-century Sydney take on Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes, in a joint Griffin Theatre–Bell Shakespeare production. She is also working on a secret project for Sydney Theatre Company as recipient of the $25,000 2015 Patrick White Playwrights’ Fellowship. But first, Melbourne Festival audiences will see Masquerade, her adaptation of British writer Kit Williams’ 1979 picture book, which was well received at the Sydney Festival in January.

Masquerade tells the story of Jack Hare, who is asked by the Moon to send a love letter to the Sun. Given this book as a child in hospital by her godmother, Tessa, Mulvany was captivated by its escapism, attuned to its melancholy and sense of mortality: the Moon noting a jewel’s “beauty that is for ever and mocks Time”. A few years later, Tessa, who was bipolar, took her own life.

Mulvany didn’t know if Kit Williams was alive. He wasn’t “Google-able”. But in 2009, she visited him at his invitation. “Kit’s stipulation was: ‘You can have the rights, as long as you include your story, and that it’s for nine to 90-year-olds,’ ” says Mulvany. “He’s like, ‘I want a hospital.’ ”

So Mulvany included a little boy, Joe, in hospital, as a proxy for herself. “I guess I’m a little bit of everyone in the story. I’m probably the man who keeps playing the music to make the world go around, to keep everything on track.”

In every script she writes, there’s also a little bit of Mulvany’s late boyfriend, the actor Mark Priestley, who took his life very publicly, aged 32, in 2008.

When Mulvany finally blurted out to Williams that the date he suggested they meet in Britain to discuss Masquerade was the first anniversary of Priestley’s death, Williams put his hand on her shoulder and said: “Well, you’re meant to be here, aren’t you?”

Priestley had suffered terrible depression and insomnia.

“His favourite thing in the world was, when I’d type away on my laptop, I’d usually type with my legs crossed, and he would lay in bed and hold my big toe, and just watch.

“I said to him once, ‘It’s really weird that you do that. Why do you do that? It’s like thumb-sucking or something.’

“He said, ‘You wiggle it, and I just like to hold it and watch you.’

“ ‘Why?’

“ ‘I find it calming. The one thing that calms me is watching you write.’

“I’ve never told anyone that. So when I write, I kind of imagine Mark holding onto my big toe. I don’t know if that makes me write more or less, but I think it makes me want to do him proud.”


Wednesday is trivia night at the Union Hotel, a careworn, functionalist Art Deco pub in Newtown’s King Street, near Kate Mulvany’s home in Sydney’s inner-west. Billiards cease at 7.30pm and the public bar packs with punters competing over some tough-arsed questions.

Seated on bar stools around a table, over red wine and beer, are Mulvany, 37, wearing a fawn jumper showing a wise owl, and her husband, the Melbourne-born stage and screen actor Hamish Michael, 35, of TV’s Crownies and Janet King.

There’s also Damon Herriman, wearing a cap, who’s currently playing a transgender character opposite Mulvany in the forthcoming Foxtel series Secret City, shooting in federal parliament. Finally, though not least, given his quick-fire recall of useful trivia, there is the bearded actor Glenn Hazeldine, seen on Melbourne and Sydney stages recently in Love and Information.

Controversy breaks out: another team has stolen the trivia group’s name. In the far corner, they are also signing themselves as the “Big Fact Hunt”, a pun that sets an enunciation trap for the quizmaster. Mulvany’s team rebrands as the “Original Big Fact Hunt established in 2010”, only to have a third group in the near corner jokingly shout they, too, are Big Fact Hunts.

A bearded, bullish rival in a black T-shirt approaches the table, and jokes that they settle the score on the street. Mulvany coolly smiles and suggests instead their tables join forces next time, to take on the usurpers. She is suddenly a clever-tongued senator Cassius, a thorn to yonder Caesar’s ambitions of monarchy, and this Brutus is quickly impressed with dreams of rising above being a villager in this Roman republic of trivia.

Four years ago, in 2011, Bell Shakespeare’s Peter Evans coaxed Mulvany back onto the stage. For three years since Priestley’s death, she had mostly locked herself away typing captions for the deaf and audio-describing for the blind, to pay her bills. She had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder: her empathy with her father was complete.

Evans asked Mulvany about which role she’d like in a forthcoming Julius Caesar production: Cassius or Mark Antony?

“In that split second, I had to decide if I was going to get back on stage, and which of the greatest characters of the Bard I was going to play, having not done Shakespeare since Perth, when I was an understudy to Juliet,” she laughs.

“I was so scared. Then he asked me to adapt it as well. I got a panic attack every night on stage, after the killing of Caesar [Alex Menglet]. There was something in the action of it.

“One actor, Danny Frederiksen, who was playing Mark Antony, spotted something was going on. He said to me: ‘You get this look.’ After he spotted it, I never had it again. It was like, I just needed someone to acknowledge it, including myself.” The following year, she played her lauded Lady Macbeth.

Knowing what she went through with Priestley, Mulvany was able to avoid the health system pitfalls and access good help for her own trauma. How might a better world help people such as Mark, or her godmother Tessa?

“Just pure care. Empathy. Listening. Giving them a bed to sleep in. Knowing anyone can be affected by it. The number of hospital trips we’d make with Mark, and he’d be getting asked for his autograph instead, I just lost count. It was the most heartbreaking journey of my life, and I knew the ending before it happened. And when the ending came, I went to every single one of those institutions – hospitals, doctors, counsellors, therapists – and sat them down and said, ‘We told you this would happen.’

“I like to think there’s been a few shifts since then, but not enough. Not enough.”

Along came Hamish, whom she’d first met years earlier. “It’s so hard to explain. He just gets me. I was in a bad way when he met me. I was 45 kilos, and mourning at the age of 30. Unlike many people who hadn’t seen me for a while, he just spoke normally to me. He lets me mourn, even now.

“I’ll have days that are hard, when flashes of things come back to me from that time. Hamish will put on a DVD of Mark, and say, ‘You need to spend some time with Mark.’

“Just today, there was this big post Hamish put on Facebook: ‘This is what my wife’s doing at the moment; I’m so proud of her and just want everyone to know I love her.’

“He’s always there with a cuddle and a kind word. He always knows when I’m working too hard and goes, ‘Stop it.’ More than anything, he makes me laugh. He allows me to have my history, and my future.”


Lifeline: 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 24, 2015 as "Play on".

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