Profile

Leah Purcell’s life and spirituality are expressed directly through her work, as writer, director and performer. By Steve Dow.

Actor, director and writer Leah Purcell

Leah Purcell.
Credit: Oombarra Productions

It’s a 35-degree day in November 2019, five weeks into a six-week shoot for The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. Leah Purcell is throwing herself onto the dusty ground on top of a steep mountain. She is playing the fierce frontierswoman Molly Johnson, who is prepared to shoot any predatory man and bury him where he falls if it keeps her four children from harm.

“Shamed me manhood in front of a whore,” yells Matt Klarie, who plays drover Joe Johnson, brandishing the shard of a broken bottle as Purcell grabs a rifle. The pair wrestle. Purcell, her face pressed to the ground, shouts “Cut!” and then says: “I shouldn’t take that left-hander so hard, because it’s a backhander.”

Between takes, Purcell tells Klarie: “Get your stance right, bruh … You lunge. That’s it there, mate.” Purcell’s boxing days and Wentworth-era fight training are coming to the fore as she stars in and directs her first feature film. She also wrote the screenplay, which drastically raises the stakes of Henry Lawson’s classic 1892 short story The Drover’s Wife. Purcell’s mother, Florence, would read the little red book of Lawson to her from the age of five.

Joe and Molly’s shanty home up here, in the Monaro, Ngarigo and Walgalu lands of the Snowy Mountains, is newly constructed from antique stringybark slabs and mountain ash poles, ringed by magnificent dry curling branches on the surrounding gum trees.

A worrying smoke haze is visible to the west. A few of the 71 crew on set anxiously try to get phone signals to monitor reports of the fire heading from Kosciuszko National Park to Jindabyne. If the fire approaches the film set, the plan is to make haste to the Murrumbidgee River below. Purcell needs to get her film in the can even as locals are losing their farms and livestock. “Should we run out and be helping?” she thinks. In the end, the slab hut is dismantled and rebuilt on a neighbouring farm. It somehow survives the raging fire that sweeps through the area, leaving a charred circle around it.

 

After a ragged year of cancellations, The Drover’s Wife is finally scheduled for national release next May and is screening this weekend at the Sydney Film Festival. Eighteen months after production wrapped, I meet Purcell again in the office of film company Roadshow. She wears spectacles, a dress with an Indigenous print and black earrings she has woven from wax paper as a new, meditative hobby.

Originally she wrote her version of The Drover’s Wife as a play for Sydney’s Belvoir, where it premiered in 2016 and won many awards. Her adaptation of Lawson’s story gives the titular wife not only a name but a complex backstory and, underneath a rollicking thriller, raises profound questions about the Frontier Wars, massacres of Aboriginal people and the Stolen Generations.

In the Lawson story, set on unnamed flat country with vegetation consisting of “stunted, rotten native apple trees”, a snake enters the family hut while the drover is away. There are sketchy mentions of Aboriginal characters, including a “stray blackfellow” who stacks the wood heap, an Elder called King Jimmy, and Jimmy’s wife, Black Mary, “the ‘whitest’ gin in all the land”.

The intruder in Purcell’s take is an Aboriginal man named Yadaka – played on stage by Mark Coles Smith and in the film by Rob Collins – who is on the run for alleged murders but who comes to tell Molly the story of her origins. Indigenous characters are central in Purcell’s version, and Black Mary – also known as Waraganj – is key to Molly’s life.

Purcell is calling on many of her skills for this film. She once fronted a rock band, the Leah Purcell Group, which 20 years ago played regular gigs in Sydney’s Surry Hills and Kings Cross and supported a Shania Twain Australian concert tour. In this story, Purcell sings the ballad “Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair”, a song popularised by Nina Simone but that likely originated in Scotland, and which is passed down from Molly’s Scottish father, Jock Stewart, as a code to Molly’s origins. “I wanted Jock and Black Mary to have a real, true genuine love story because there were these love stories of a white man with a black woman, and they were true,” she says.

The song is partly wish fulfilment. Purcell, a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman, grew up on the outskirts of rural Murgon, Queensland, the child of an Indigenous mother and a white father, a butcher who lived on the other side of town. Purcell’s father had two families – he was also married to a white woman. She wasn’t allowed to call him “Dad”, although she made peace with him before he died, aged 95.

She says the ballad “lent itself to me fantasising about my mother and father’s relationship, what it could have been, under different circumstances. I sort of gave them a happy ending, you know?” She smiles.

Purcell expanded The Drover’s Wife into a novel, which was published in 2019. She introduced additional characters, including Louisa Clintoff (played in the film by Jessica De Gouw), a writer and women’s suffrage activist from an English left-liberal revolutionary family, who bears witness to Molly’s suffering in a campaign on behalf of  “battered wives”. This character is a tribute to Louisa Lawson, mother of Henry and a writer in her own right, who campaigned against domestic violence.

This too is very personal. “When I got back to Sydney and it was all over and you’re looking back at rushes, and you’re reliving personal experience, you sort of want to leave it in the past and move forward,” she says. “Bruises, broken bones, it heals if it doesn’t kill you, but it heals. It’s the mentality, it’s your mind thought. Every time you drag that up, you slip back. It took me 12 years for my mind to get right, but I’m in a strong position and I’m in a wonderful relationship [with Bain Stewart, her life and business partner]. We’ve talked about it and I was in a safe place.”

 

Purcell was born in 1970, the youngest child to her “beautiful, courageous” mother, Florence. “She’s me and I’m her,” says Purcell now. “She was my mother, my father, my hero, she was a strong woman. She is Molly Johnson. Molly is very much modelled on my mother’s determination and the attitude you’ve just got to get things done and do what you had to do.”

A bush woman, Florence went droving in her younger years with her father. “My mother taught me how to split a log. She’d say, ‘Don’t ever stack it hollow, a snake will get under it.’ ”

When Purcell went into her father’s butcher shop – she declines to name him – he would give her a wink and a chicken leg. Many years later, in 2013, Purcell wrote and directed an episode of the television series Redfern Now titled “Consequences”, in which actor Tammy Clarkson Jones plays Mattie, an Indigenous woman and cultural anthropologist, who asks her white butcher father: “Why did you leave my mother?”

A young Purcell found her calling at Murgon High School during a three-month musical theatre course. Growing up in the bush in the 1980s, she says that kids often ended up working at the local meatworks or in nursing. At 17, Purcell was pregnant with her daughter, Amanda. A year later, in 1988, Florence died.

“My mother, she never had much. She grew me up on a sole pension and odd jobs and she looked after seven of her own children, two nephews, two white kids who would never go home, her mother and her father, and then when I was old enough to be lookin’ after myself, she gets bowel cancer and dies at 60,” says Purcell. “Her life should have just been beginning.”

Today Purcell is a grandmother to Amanda’s boys Wurume Raphael, aged 12, and 10-year-old Lysander Wahn. Partner Bain Stewart says she is “old school, good morals, unbelievable work ethic”, another trait inherited from her mother, who worked as a maid for well-to-do Murgon people. “When me and my sister-cousins get together, mate, we can clean a house,” Purcell says with a laugh.

“I get my courage from Bain,” she says. “Knowing he’s got my back, he believes in my ability, and forever more encouraging me to take those crazy, outrageous creative steps.”

She has lived in Sydney for the past 27 years. In 1997 she donned boxing gloves and singlet for the autobiographical work Box the Pony, which Purcell co-wrote with Scott Rankin, at the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse theatre. Stewart recalls Purcell’s terror in the dressing-room: she had no dress rehearsal and had never performed solo on a main stage. “She said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’, and the stage manager pushed her out. She said, ‘I’ll either be back in two minutes or I’ll be back in an hour.’ ”

Box the Pony toured on and off for three years. It paid homage to Purcell’s maternal grandmother, Daisy Walker, who was stolen from an Aboriginal camp by authorities at the age of five, along with her sister and brother. Purcell sang Run Daisy Run, composed in English and her grandmother’s tongue.

In Purcell’s various versions of The Drover’s Wife, Molly’s eldest child, Daniel – played pitch perfectly in the film by newcomer Malachi Dower-Roberts – is named in honour of Daisy’s father, a Scottish white man who lived in the blackfella camp, and who, according to the story passed to Purcell through a tribal aunt, jumped on a horse to try to save the children from being stolen. “He managed to get the boy off the cattle cart, but there was a sharp right turn and he had to jump off,” says Purcell. “The two girls were in the trains in front, and he never, ever saw them again.”

Other autobiographical details have been lovingly inserted into Purcell’s various adaptations: Yadaka, for instance, speaks of once having been a clown named Tippo in a South African circus, only to be abandoned in Melbourne. Purcell’s Aboriginal great-grandfather, Tippo Charlie Chambers, was touring with such a circus at the same time Lawson was publishing The Drover’s Wife. Yadaka also speaks of his family being rounded up into a river and shot dead by white men. Purcell and Stewart are now planning a television series spinoff from The Drover’s Wife, which will likely explore what happens to Molly’s children.

I first interviewed Purcell in the Belvoir rehearsal room in 2016 before the premiere of The Drover’s Wife. She said then of her writing process: “I just believe I’m a vessel for a higher power.”

“If I get a calling,” she says now, confirming her deep spirituality, “or if I’m to be a voice for something in my life to try to make change and betterment, it’d be the Stolen Generations, bringing awareness to the past wrongs, and also the domestic violence, you know?

“If I have a platform I can shine a light onto those subjects, or give someone the courage to speak up, walk away, go look for who their family are. My mother gifted me The Drover’s Wife.” She laughs. “Who’d ever have thought a five-year-old Aboriginal girl, a fair-skinned one at that from the bush, was going to write a movie and star in it?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "A chosen vessel".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.