A timeless take on the oldest profession

Actor Simon Burke talks about Sydney Theatre Company's Mrs Warren’s Profession, which is at Riverside, as well as his own profession, including his first film at 13, lunching with Meryl Streep, working with Judi Dench . . . and hosting Play School. He spoke to Ian Horner.

You’ve had extraordinary opportunities overseas. 

‘‘And you know why? Because of the incredible opportunities we have in our own country. I’m not comparing myself with Geoffrey Rush but I’ll never forget his Academy Award acceptance speech for Shine. He said: ‘I want to thank every single Australian actor I’ve ever worked with.’ It’s true! It’s the fellowship you get from your own country that gives you the guts to take on Broadway or the West End. You never forget where you come from.’’

Still, an actor’s life is filled with rejection. Auditions are nothing more than endless  job interviews. 

‘‘Yes, you’re right!’’

And you’ve written some very telling song lyrics:

It’s a world of endless callbacks, constant rejection,

And watching daytime telly till it’s way too late,

‘You’d have to be a mug’ you tell your mirror’s sad reflection,

As you sweat about a job you’ll probably hate.

That’s a pretty bleak look at an actor’s life! 

‘‘I’m terribly impressed and flattered you found those lyrics. I think they capture the very lowest point of m job but the highest point is almost incalculable. The highs in my business are as high as the lows are low. I’ve sweated on a job I knew I’d hate. I’ve been there. It’s a bloody hard road.

At 13 you were famously a part of that wonderful renaissance of Australian cinema, in The Devil’s Playground. 

‘‘You never know you’re part of a renaissance until later. My experience was confined to being away from home for the first time for eight weeks and staying up late. It was such a money part a lot was riding on my work and I took it pretty seriously. It was great to be afforded that responsibility. Luckily, I worked with great people who looked after me and acknowledged my work if it was good. I never felt like ‘That kid’. Interestingly, in the last few years I’ve played dads a lot, like The Sound of Music on the West End where we had 96 young von Trapp children and then on Mary Poppins for a year and there were 20 kids on that. I feel a great responsibility working with child performers because I was a child performer and I know what it’s like. Often we had the same workload as the adults. Whether or not you go on to become an adult performer is immaterial.’

At 34 you worked with Judi Dench for eight months. 

‘‘She was everything you expected and more. She was phenomenally inspiring, very very funny, she mucked up a lot, and had the biggest heart and a generous spirit. We were doing A Little Night Music and I was playing her toy-boy. I had to chase her around in my undies.’’

You had dinner with Meryl Streep. What did you talk about? 

‘‘It was through Fred Schepisi who wrote and directed Devil’s Playground. On my 21st birthday I was in the States and Fred and his wife were living in Hollywood and he was preparing for Evil Angels in which Meryl Streep was to play Lindy Chamberlain. We went out for dinner with Meryl and her husband. I tagged along. That was pretty cool! Meryl was preparing for the role of Lindy. She said to me when she plays a living person she watches lots of tapes of them and there tends to be one thing they say that becomes a focal point. It was when 60 Minutes asked Lindy Chamberlain: ‘Can you ever forgive people for what’s happened to you?’ Lindy said ‘Nivah, ivah’ [never, ever] and there was this New Zealand accent mixed with an Australian accent and I just thought Wow, she’s there already!’’

Olivier said ‘There are no small parts, only small actors’ but do you think he’d ever have hosted Play School? 

‘‘He probably auditioned but didn’t get in, Ian, is what I reckon!’’

What did you take away from that job? 

‘‘It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I never expected to call my Play School skills as much as I have. Noni Hazelhurst said, and it’s true, basically the requirement in Play School is to be yourself. You spend your life as an actor being other people but if you look at some of the best performances you’ve ever seen it’s about how much of yourself you bring to a role. Also we actors spend our whole lives pretending the camera isn’t there but in Play School you have to speak to the camera, not that it’s all the children in Australia — just one four-year old.’’

Mrs Warren’s profession is the oldest profession in the world which is also the subject of some of the oldest plays in the world. What does Shaw say about prostitution that hasn’t been said before? 

‘‘The interesting is how quite shocking it still is, selling your body. We’re a pretty racy generation but what would you do if you found out your mum paid for your entire education with the proceeds of a brothel? It’s pretty shocking, for anyone, whether you’re living in 1984 or now.  Shaw’s talking about society’s hypocrisy. In those days they said it was better for someone to toil away in a factory and possibly die of lead poisoning at 23 or 24 and never have enough food. That was more virtuous. He doesn’t necessarily advocate prostitution but he certainly draws the distinction that the world then, and I guess now, is run by blokes. Mrs Warren says: ‘If the world is run by men there’s no point pretending it’s not. You’ve got to live in the world you live in.’’’

How are modern audiences reacting to a play that’s 120 years old? 

‘‘It completely floored me how much it speaks to a modern audience. This is one of his early plays so it’s the voice of a young man. The mistake is to think of him as this old man with the great long grey beard. In this play we have the voice of a young, rebellious guy in his early 30s who’s got some really full-on ideas about the world. The language seems quite difficult on the page but when you’re performing it it sounds like modern-day speech. Particularly the scenes between Mrs Warren and her daughter which are the crux of the play. Full-on stuff between mother and daughter. I watch it in the wings and think about my own mum and my sister. This play really is about parents and kids and about a younger generation supplanting an older generation. That’s never going to date.’’

Sydney Theatre Company’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession is at Riverside Theatres Parramatta from April 17 to 20. The production returns to the Wharf for an encore season, July 4 to 20.

Details, bookings: riversideparramatta.com.au or sydneytheatre.com.au.

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