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After a quarter of a century as one of Australia’s finest stage actors, Anita Hegh is well placed to channel Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. “Although it is a much kinder world for women than it has been, there’s still a long way to go.” By Steve Dow.

Anita Hegh

Anita Hegh in rehearsal for A Room of One’s Own at Belvoir.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Seven floors up in a mid-1970s apartment block in Sydney’s inner east, overlooking boats bobbing in Elizabeth Bay, the woman playing Virginia Woolf is in a room not quite of her own. It’s certainly not the separate lodging in which, almost a century ago, Woolf said young female students should seek shelter from the claims and tyrannies of family, to have the time to think, dream, imagine and write.

Natural light streams from windows on three sides into the lounge room. Infant toys are scattered on the lounge floor, baby changing and laundry items piled on the kitchen bench. Earlier, Anita Hegh, wearing a white V-neck T-shirt and dark cotton pants, her hair brushed back, tried to buzz me in, but the door downstairs wouldn’t open.

Hegh came down in the lift to escort me to the apartment where she currently lives with her partner, yacht salesman Jay McEvoy, and their daughter, Edie, who turns one this month.

At 48, Hegh has been a “jobbing” actor for 25 years. “I never kind of hit it as someone with weight, you know?” she says with characteristic self-deprecation, as she fixes me a flat white and herself a cup of tea.

Her first professional role, in 1995, was as the wronged daughter Cordelia in a Sydney Theatre Company production of King Lear, after she graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). She was handed a $360 cheque in a yellow envelope for her first week’s work.

“Anything to do with the arts, you don’t go, ‘Oh, I know how I’ll be rich and set up my family,’ ” she says. “I think it does cost us a lot. Certainly it’s not until I’ve got older that I’ve realised that.” Hegh is quick to scotch the idea she might have instead pursued a different life that paid more, arguing she lacks “thick enough skin” to follow the corporate trail of some of her earlier peers. She laughs because while acting may be a nurturing environment for those who bare their vulnerability to strangers in the dark, it also requires a resilient hide – particularly over the past six months, as theatres went dark due to Covid-19.

As an actor, Hegh has been particularly lucky, as she was able to access JobKeeper and the Actors Benevolent Fund. The apartment where she, McEvoy and Edie are living belongs to a friend stuck in New Zealand. The recession meant the family had to move out of their former home.

“I’m very fortunate – I’ve had not just a financial lifeline in this job, but mentally having something to focus on has been stopping me from feeling adrift,” she says. “I can get in a room with people and talk about a piece of work. I can’t complain about how it’s been, really.”

In primary school Hegh was shy, and always wanted to be “the tree up the back” in school plays. In high school, several teachers encouraged her to pursue drama. At Sydney University, she studied English and modern history with the aim of being a teacher, but after performing with the Sydney University Dramatic Society, she auditioned for NIDA on a whim.

Most of Hegh’s career has been on stage rather than on screen. She wrung pathos from the role of Margaret Kilker, a mother who believes love is sacrifice but spends her life in a daze after the disappearance of her firstborn, in Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Ruth Park’s Harp in the South trilogy. Her portrayal of widow Betty Dullfleet was similarly powerful in Tom Wright’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s parable of corruption, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. She has performed in three Caryl Churchill plays: Top Girls, Cloud Nine and Love and Information.

“I have been talking about giving up acting forever,” she says, but adds that toying with giving up is her “go-to defence mechanism”. “I haven’t found the thing yet that gives me a burning desire to drop acting altogether.” Teaching drama to primary children through Sydney Theatre Company’s teaching artist program, she says, has come close to being that thing.

 

Six months ago, Hegh was well into rehearsing a new adaptation of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at Belvoir in Sydney.

A second actor, Ella Prince, was blocking a separate space that conjured the lives of earlier women poets and novelists, represented by a glass room on stage. In this adaptation by Carissa Licciardello and Tom Wright, Prince dons a dress from an earlier era to signify, say, an illiterate woman from Shakespeare’s time, or Jane Austen hiding her manuscripts from prying male eyes, charting centuries of economic inequality borne of the literal ownership of women.

Covid-19 called time on theatres around Australia in March; but now, with stages gingerly lighting up again in spring – Melbourne being the notable exception – this two-hander seems purpose-built for social distancing. It’s performed as planned, although spacing out audiences means there’s a long waiting list. Only 115 of the usual 350 seats are being filled for each performance.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote optimistically that in 100 years – our present – women would “take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them”.

Hegh partly concurs: “The conditions are here for a female Shakespeare,” she says. “That said, I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think domestic abuse and equal pay have been fully addressed. Although it is a much kinder world for women than it has been, there’s still a long way to go.”

Woolf was aware that “as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth”. Hegh says Woolf was astute: “I think it’s a great insight for someone of her privilege to see that, because I often find people from great privilege don’t see that.”

On a wall at Belvoir, co-adapter and director Carissa Licciardello has fixed a Woolf quote, ahead of her first stage production. It reads in part: “… to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour … is the most abject treachery”. Licciardello hopes this sentiment will enthuse a new generation of young women to pursue their creative visions.

“Anita is deeply intelligent, which she would never say,” says Licciardello. “So much of her intelligence is in the way she can feel through something, as well as think through it in a conscious way. The warmth and intelligence and wit that she brings to this text, and the aliveness she brings to it, is exactly right for this work. Anita is able to make what might be an abstract idea really clear for an audience.”

“I feel like I’m introverted,” says Hegh. “People are often surprised by that, so I think it depends where I’m at in my life. I … probably feel like I have to be in certain circumstances brave, so maybe I overcompensate sometimes.”

Hegh, or “Neets” as her friends call her, says she works “from the outside in” to understand a character: “I’m an instinctual actor; I’m not by any means an intellect,” she says, “and as my brain catches up with everybody else, I deepen that work.”

 

Visual artist Susie Dureau says her studio allows her the space to create and dream, and once she steps over the landing at the entrance, she feels artistic freedom. Hegh posed here for several sittings with Edie, reading from a picture book and holding aloft her script of A Room of One’s Own.

In the painting of Hegh and her child, submitted for this year’s Archibald Prize (it did not make the cut for the finalists), Woolf’s face is substituted for the script: a portrait within a portrait.

“Anita’s really clever,” Dureau told me over the phone before I met Hegh. “She’s generous both intellectually and with her heart.”

While Dureau, who is also a mother, was painting Hegh’s portrait, they discussed how women in the arts support one another. “Virginia does talk a lot about how women need to consider their roles as mothers, as supporters of each other, and, with all the other expectations on them from society, how we make art,” says Dureau.

Holding Edie, who has woken with a short cry, Hegh says she hopes Woolf is right about the wider opportunities for girls and women. What does she wish for Edie’s future? “I hope that when Edie looks at the painting that Susie made, she goes, ‘Oh yeah, there’s me as the little bit of hope for the future.’ ”

Hegh and McEvoy share parenting duties, an essential help for Hegh’s work, but even so, she will eschew the usual post-show red wine in the theatre foyer in favour of earlier nights.

“This is where he is amazing,” says Hegh of McEvoy, whom she calls “Old Salty” for his yachting prowess. “He’s so built for this. He has another daughter, so he’s been through this before. He’s great at that kind of stuff: nappies, looking after her. He’s absolutely besotted. He’ll go, ‘You need to have a sleep’, and send me to the other room.”

The couple have a little boat moored at nearby Rushcutters Bay. A while ago, Hegh made her first solo journey from Sydney to Pittwater. Is she a good sailor? “Let’s put it this way: I could get you from A to B, but you’d want to have a lot of time,” she says.

We speak of the isolation Caryl Churchill felt as she raised three children while writing radio and stage plays on the kitchen table. “It’s truly exceptional,” says Hegh. “To be able to hold a thought in your brain [while parenting]. Wow, how is that possible?” She nods to Edie, resting her head on her mother’s chest.

“Having this happen at a late age – my partner and I did IVF and all that stuff and nothing happened and then lo and behold, right at the last minute, this one pops into our lives – it’s so extraordinary. We’re tired, because we’re old.” Hegh laughs. “We’ve got a real ball of energy here.”

Hegh’s family, despite both parents dabbling in making art, never really discussed the arts. “They’re not showy people at all, by any means. Mum is extraordinarily bright, she did very well at university, but she raised us and then later on went into the public service.”

Hegh’s late father, Harold, a carpenter from Norway, a former deep-sea diver and photographer who made jewellery, was considerably older than her Estonian mother, Maret, who is a “fantastic painter” of landscapes and fruit. Hegh has a younger brother by four years, Arnold, who looks like her twin. He is a carpenter and house painter, and has two children.

“Dad had me later in life, too,” Hegh reflects. “In fact, gosh, same age just about: 46 when he had me, and I was 46 when I got pregnant – how strange is that?” She sounds as if she is considering this biographical symmetry for the first time. “I’ve been thinking about him a lot, actually. I think, ‘Oh gee, it would have been really nice if he saw this [Edie’s birth] happen.’ ”

In her own life, Hegh wasn’t conscious of how her gender held back her artistic aspirations.

“I look back and I go, there were a lot of difficulties there for that girl,” she says. “But at the time I was completely oblivious. Speaking to young women now who are coming into the arts, and they are so right-minded and conscious of all the things that I wasn’t, and it’s so fantastic to see how confident they are and that they’re able to speak up for what they need.”

Such as safe spaces, free from sexual harassment? “Safe spaces, their pay, their ‘why can’t I play Hamlet?’ All those sorts of things are really present for that generation and that’s really setting them in good stead.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2020 as "Making room for art".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.