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Marta Dusseldorp, one of the best-known faces on Australian television, talks about history, loss and her highly successful family. By Steve Dow.

Crownies’ Marta Dusseldorp on stage and screen

Marta Dusseldorp in rehearsal for Griffin Theatre Company's 'Gloria'.
Credit: Brett Boardman

A dozen years ago, the actor Marta Dusseldorp was walking along a long museum corridor in Berlin, a city that wears its horrific history on its sleeve, where bullet holes in buildings and statues immediately connect the visitor to World War II. She was trying to take in names and death and genocide and sadness.

Some 2700 concrete slabs were then being laid on a sloping field elsewhere in the city, as a memorial to the murdered Jews. On the edge of the adjacent Tiergarten, a concrete cuboid showing a film of same-sex couples kissing would later be placed and, to the park’s east, near the domed Reichstag, a memorial pool to the Sinti and Roma victims.

Ending up in one tiny museum room, Sydney-born Dusseldorp mulled the sensation wrought by Holocaust commemoration, the “total captivity and helplessness”. She then encountered a woman seated beside her in a wheelchair. A bright pink bow was tied to the woman’s legs.

“I saw hope,” says Dusseldorp, at a Woollahra cafe near her inner-eastern Sydney home. “Here’s a woman who can’t walk, and yet she adorns herself with colour and frivolity and celebration, and I thought: ‘That’s the human spirit.’ ”

Dusseldorp, now 43, was then some years off dominating our television screens: first as contemporary lawyer Janet King in the ABC TV ensemble drama Crownies, a show retooled and renamed to cast her as the lead; as journalist Linda Hillier, alongside Guy Pearce in the ABC crime noir Jack Irish; and then as Sarah Adams, a nurse in a country town for the Australian postwar drama A Place to Call Home, initially on Seven and now on Foxtel.

“I auditioned for all of them,” says Dusseldorp. “Some I auditioned three times … I was unknown when I got all of those roles. I had no profile.”

But, I protest, she’d had a notable string of stage roles, including in 2009 as Queen Margaret for Sydney Theatre Company’s The War of the Roses, directed by Benedict Andrews, who recently described Dusseldorp to me as a “very brave and captivating and muscular actress”.

“Yeah, they don’t care about that,” Dusseldorp laughs. She is wearing a black cardigan over a blue shirt, her blonde hair brushed back. “They think, ‘Where have you been for the last 15 years?’ I was like, ‘Ummm…’

“That was great, actually, because there was no expectation or pressure I felt when the genesis of [Janet, Linda and Sarah] arrived in my life. So I felt very free to make them whatever I wanted them to be, and I think they’re all completely different, and I hope I play them differently.

“That’s certainly something I spend a lot of energy on, delineating between them, especially when they’re all on screen in the same year.”

Sarah Adams, the story goes, had been an inmate of Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp north of Berlin, who had converted to Judaism for her husband, René, mentally damaged by his time in Dachau.

Dusseldorp’s real-life husband, Ben Winspear – father of Dusseldorp’s two children, Grace, 9, and Maggie, 6 – played René until the character’s sudden death in last year’s third season. Dusseldorp is part way through filming season four, which will deal with the Petrov affair and fear of Reds under the bed.

Dusseldorp has read Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, the Italian Jewish writer’s account of his time in Auschwitz. “I found his levity kept you reading because he never let you hurt as much as he had,” says the actor, who then read British journalist Sarah Helm’s If This Is a Woman, a chronicle of Ravensbrück.

“She looked at the cross-section of women that were in the prison camps,” says Dusseldorp. “It wasn’t just the Jewish people, it was also the Roma, it was also the artists, it was the poets, the politicians. And I found that kind of spread really extraordinary, and how they survived, because they came at it culturally very differently.

“So their survival techniques were connected to who they were.”

 

Marta Dusseldorp’s maternal grandfather was the late Sydney paediatrician Sandy Robertson, an Australian army medical officer posted to Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, in 1941 to run a small hospital, but taken prisoner by the Japanese.

“Most of his company was walked to a port, and bayonetted in the forest, and him and about two or three others survived,” says Dusseldorp.

Robertson was shipped to Japan’s Shikoku Island, where he suffered malnutrition, developed diabetes and lost sight in one eye when assaulted by his captors. Returning to Sydney and his wife, Gwenda, they had daughters Edwina – Marta’s mother – and Victoria. Robertson worked with the vision impaired for 35 years, and had a kindergarten named after him.

“My grandmother [Gwenda] always had that sensation around her of pride and frugality,” says Dusseldorp. “No one talked too much, it was all very held, and yet this incredible pain [was] underneath it all. And loss.”

Dusseldorp’s paternal grandfather was the late hydraulic engineering specialist Dick Dusseldorp, dubbed variously by journalists with conflicting epithets such as the “steel-reinforced tycoon”, a “true Australian entrepreneur”, a “revolutionary” and the “Dutch socialist”.

As founder and chairman of Australian construction giant Lend Lease (now Lendlease), Dick was an early pioneer of social capitalism, emphasising employees’ and shareholders’ interests alike with profit-sharing schemes.

As a teenager, Dick had been a deckhand on an oil tanker travelling the Atlantic. He was rejected as a merchant marine when it was discovered he was colourblind.

During the German occupation, in late 1940, Dick, who was Catholic, was rounded up with other Dutchmen of working age and deported to Germany, for forced labour in Berlin. Dick escaped, making his way back to Utrecht, but in 1943, was deported again with his brother Hank and their families. The brothers were forced to work for nine months for the Siemens organisation in Krakow.

The Dusseldorps were furnished by an underground movement with fake passports, and fled Poland, crossing Germany and reaching the Dutch border – where Dick was arrested by German police, and spent two weeks in custody before escaping once more.

Dick arrived in Sydney in 1951, aged 32, with his wife, Anne, and their five children, as construction manager of a Dutch firm, to oversee the tricky postwar task of building 200 cottage homes connected to the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme.

Within five years, Dick had floated his own company, Lend Lease, which would build Sydney’s first concrete skyscraper, Caltex House, as well as the first stage of the Sydney Opera House.

To mark Dick’s 1988 retirement, the non-profit Dusseldorp Skills Forum was established, to build skills among young people. Dick’s second child and Marta’s father, Tjerk, is chairman of what’s today known as the Dusseldorp Forum; her older sister, Teya, is its executive director.

Tjerk (anglicised as Jack), headed up the Office of Youth Affairs in the second Hawke government. He had been the first executive director of the progressive Evatt Foundation think tank, from which he launched WorldSkills Australia and WorldSkills International.

“So you had the bricklayers competing, jewellery makers, breadmakers, joiners, electricians, hairdressers,” says Marta. “And so I would go to these events filled with these incredible trades. Then he started sending volunteer groups over to Africa, to teach and leave them with skills … so I was always aware the world was much bigger than me and my drama school.”

Marta today is an Australian special representative for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She recalls a video the UNHCR sent her of a Syrian boy who survived a machete attack and being buried alive, dug out by his sister.

“They are working tirelessly on all these crises that pop up, and then they go out of favour with the media. So then I guess they asked me to bring it back up, so that people might write a little article, so someone might donate.”

 

Marta, born in 1973, was named by her mother, Edwina, for the spy and erotic dancer Mata Hari: “I think she just liked the name, and it is slightly European.” Edwina continued to work in advertising full-time, even after she turned down an agency directorship because she had a family.

Marta lost her infant brother, Yoris, to cancer when she was eight.

“Anything like that changes you the day they die, because you realise, well, life is not guaranteed and it makes it very real that you will die, and what does that give you when you’re eight? It gives you a sense of how important family really is, but how ultimately you’re possibly quite alone.”

Marta felt connected to Yoris for a long time, and in that sense “he grew up with me”. Does she have a religious faith? “No, I think that destroyed any chance for me to believe anyone could have had a plan for that.”

Then came twin younger brothers, Joe, now a microsurgeon, and Tom, a food brand manager, nicknamed interchangeably as Search and Destroy in their childhoods.

Such was the chaos when the twins were four that then 14-year-old Marta asked to be sent away to boarding school, Geelong Grammar, where, having abandoned her passion for studying ballet, she won a drama prize at 17 for playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a role she would play again for Bell Shakespeare, in 2000.

After a six-year absence, Dusseldorp returns to the stage this weekend, to star in a new Benedict Andrews play, Gloria. She plays the lead role, at Griffin Theatre Company’s intimate, 105-seat Stables Theatre, where she hasn’t performed since 1999.

“It’s a challenging play,” says Dusseldorp, who will be directed by Griffin artistic director Lee Lewis, among a cast of eight. “I think it will be rewarding. And so I think for that digestion, it needs to be intimate.”

Gloria is a fading star, aloft in a penthouse, onto whom an audience transfers its aspirations while civil war breaks out in the streets below. Andrews, now based in Reykjavik, tells me he “deliberately” makes plays with “cracks and sinkholes”, and refuses to spoonfeed audiences.

“I can relate to Gloria,” says Dusseldorp. “My experiences over the last five years have given me an insight into the pressures that are placed onto someone to look a certain way or perform a certain way or to meet a certain expectation, I suppose, of leading a show.

“These are all things I am processing as Marta, but as Gloria, I think she’s past the stage of processing, and she’s been spat out the other end. So there’s a desperation to her, and a fragility. Her robustness is gone, her youth is gone, but her desire and her belief have not.

“It’s a little bit about getting older in our own lives. It’s totally relatable. When you’re at the height of your skill set, you’re the least desired, possibly, because of age.”

And yet, Dusseldorp has never been more in demand: the day after our interview, the ABC announces a third Janet King season will go into production. Dusseldorp believes there will be a fifth season of A Place to Call Home.

Yet she and Winspear, who appeared in the 2014 film The Babadook and is a Griffin associate artist, are theatre creatures at heart.

The pair met in 2003 while working on separate Sydney Theatre Company productions. “He was like a ship,” Dusseldorp told me in a previous interview. “Solid, unique. I had to go splash cold water on my face … months later I realised I’d possibly seen my future with that person.”

Says Winspear: “Marta was in The Way of the World. I said, ‘Who’s that? She’s amazing.’ … We’re both really unafraid of taking risks and making theatre that’s very theatrical; not talking-head stuff.”

Dusseldorp “constantly begs” Winspear to return to directing – she’d love to be directed by him – and laments insufficient time to play with her daughters. She makes a point of running television lines with the eldest, Grace, and entering the imaginative world of younger Maggie.

Are there roles she’s still salivating to do? “Yeah, but I think Cate Blanchett’s played them all,” she says, laughing.

“I’d love to do Medea, actually. I played her at university – badly, because I was 19, or whatever I was – and so I’d like to have another go at her.

“But a straight version, without an auteur putting a spin on it. To go back to that essential storytelling.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 27, 2016 as "Marta’s crown". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.