In the rehearsal room with one of Australia's finest actors. By Romy Ash.

Running lines with Robyn Nevin

“Don’t go in the wrong room, you’ll end up in Washington, DC, playing Rupert,” says Simon Stone, the director. They bypass the Rupert rehearsal room where there’s no acting going on, just a group of people at a table of laptops, seemingly ignoring the expanse of “stage” to the right.

Robyn Nevin laughs. Stone slicks back his hair and bares a languid smile – a tiny cut, bleeding on the side of his neck, the only sign that he could be stressed. 

“His mind,” Robyn says, “is being pulled in many directions at once.” 

She’s much smaller than Simon but keeps up with his long strides as they walk down the artery-red corridor. Rupert is a role that, despite her diminutive stature, Robyn would have no trouble filling. She has an intense stare and a voice that is measured, powerful and chameleonic. At moments, old characters slip out: the elongated vowels of Stella from a ’70s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, or the more recent Rabbi. The accent changes her, too; how she’s sitting, how she’s walking, how she holds herself. 

In the rehearsal room for Neighbourhood Watch there is a table surrounded by a mismatch of chairs, swelling with thread and foam. Even though this is the first day, the first rehearsal, the first reading of the play, everything looks lived in. Scripts are thick and thumbed, dirty already. They’re flung on the table like lost hands of cards, pages fanning out.

“Are we doing a whole scene, Simon?” 

“Ahhh, yeah.” Non-committal, he moves from actor to actor, greeting. Each actor, in turn, moves to Robyn. The room shifts around these two, like the mechanics of a stage.

“Hello, we haven’t met.”

“No, we have,” says Robyn. She checks her hair, which is long and half falling from its pins, but doesn’t fix it. Hair she will pin more neatly to play the 80-year-old Hungarian woman she is here to read. Neighbourhood Watch is a play, written by Lally Katz, specifically for her. 

“Hello David, good to see you, we must talk chairs,” Robyn says.

“Chairs … I’m at the stage where my ex-wife says, ‘No more chairs,’” he says.

“Natasha, how are you? Anxious to run some lines, no doubt?” Robyn asks.

“I kind of think I know them, but you never know until you …” Natasha trails off. 

“Once you start looking at someone–” Robyn says.

“You drop them,” says David, finishing her sentence.

“Especially when I’m thinking of all the backstage tracking, I’m like, Oh–” she makes a squeak.

“Yes,” says Robyn.

“Anyway,” says David, looking away.

“Kris. This is Kris, she plays a Serbian woman, Yovanka,” says Robyn.

“They keep changing my name,” says Kris.

“They can’t change it again.”

“The name throws me off, I mean Milova is more oxen.” She holds her body differently, shaping it so she moves with a slowness. For a moment she is bigger, and then her body settles back. “Yovanka, she sounds like … you know,” she shows her palms to the ceiling.

“Hi, hi, hi,” another actor grasps Robyn’s hands. “How’s the country?”

“Perfect. Very dry and then the rains came. It was very, sort of like, an archetypal experience of being on the land. You’d know. The rains have come. And we were so worried, about our trees dying. We’ve got a lot of exotic trees, and it was just – the ground was baked, and people said, the locals said, ‘Don’t worry, it will rain, it will rain.’”

“Hey, let’s do a read-through to remind ourselves of what play we’re doing.”

Slowly the actors cease chattering and settle there at the table. It could be a room in any community hall – an AA meeting or a meeting of concerned residents. There’s the same tall ceilings, the same wooden floors. Except this wooden floor is the stage that extends beyond them. The circular segments of the floor are ready to shift, move beneath the characters’ feet. 

Black velvet curtains that will be the extent of the set line the room. For the next week, this will be the neighbourhood in Kew where the play is set, where Ana, on whom Robyn’s character is based, still lives. In a week they will move to the theatre itself, where the props will be introduced into the black velvet: a wheelie bin, an ironing board, a set of secateurs. This will be the suburb, and Robyn will dress herself in little more than an accent and an old lady’s hairstyle.

The shape she gives her character is one that’s a little crooked, like she’s protecting one side of herself. But for now there’s no audience to see this new lopsided self.   

The actors are finally squeezed around the table, as if at a dinner party where one too many has been invited. 

“You – you should go,” Robyn says. “You can’t listen to the read-through. She’s banished now, isn’t she.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 5, 2014 as "Running lines".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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