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Leah Purcell and The Drover’s Wife

After a year of scooping up all available awards, Purcell is turning her play into a film, TV series and a novel.

Leah Purcell as The Drover's Wife / Belvoir

Leah Purcell as The Drover's Wife / Belvoir

2017 was a landmark year for writer/director/actor Leah Purcell, with critical and audience acclaim for her stage adaptation of Henry Lawson’s classic short story, The Drover’s Wife.

Purcell seemingly spent the better part of the year in the public eye, as she picked up a never-ending stream of major literary and theatre awards for the play and its script, including the Nick Enright Award for Playwriting and the Book of the Year awards at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Victorian Premier’s Award for Drama and the Victorian Prize for Literature, and the top gong, the Golden AWGIE at the annual Australian Writers’ Guild Awards.

In addition she was named on the Australian Financial Review’s Top 10 Cultural Power List for 2017.

If it sounds head spinning it is, but in truth the energetic 47-year old has always been this prolific, often with multiple projects on the go as writer, actor and director for the stage, film and TV. Her credits across the disciplines range from the autobiographical Box the Pony and Jindabyne, and in more recent times Redfern Now, Cleverman and The Secret Daughter.

Purcell admits that she was not academically inclined as a youngster. Performance was always her dream and “never in a million years did I think I’d be a writer” but her love of storytelling she acknowledges came from her mother reading her The Drover’s Wife often when she was a little girl. “It was my favourite and she’d read and recite it to me day after day.” She’s intensely passionate about her creative process, saying she’s been learning “on the job” for the past 26 years, with the play her equivalent of a Master’s degree.

Director Leah Purcell on the <em>Redfern Now</em> set / Photo credit David Dare-Parker Director Leah Purcell on the Redfern Now set / Photo credit David Dare-Parker

Purcell’s prodigious output is set to continue in 2018 as The Drover's Wife goes into the final stages of development for a feature film, a TV series and a recent publishing deal for a novel based on the play. She and partner Bain Stewart, through their production company Oombarra are working to capitalise on the play’s success and Purcell will star in and direct the feature. Add to that a new starring role in a yet-to-be-announced popular Australian TV drama and another feature, Moxie Girls, in development and it’s set to be another landmark year. Looking further afield, the stage play will again roll out across Australia with potential for seasons in New York, London and Washington.

“It’s a natural process for us,’” Purcell says of their decision to push the project into different genres. “Bain has an Aboriginal analogy,” she explains. “When we hunt for dugong we don’t just kill it. We skin it, cook it, eat it and share it. We use every last piece of it.”

Following its critical success the pair have a keen eye to its commercial success and getting it out to wide and varied audiences. “The plaudits are a wonderful achievement and it’s validated me as a writer. But we also want to make it profitable,” she adds.

The seeming overnight success of The Drover’s Wife was anything but, says Purcell.

“Things that I’d dreamt of as a little girl, when mum read me the Henry Lawson story, came together with the play. Personally, the story has been percolating in me for 42 years. Professionally, after 26 years on the hustle, it’s come to fruition.”

A feature film is next in line. Purcell is currently working on the third draft of the screenplay as well as refining two versions of the novel. The first attempt at the novel helped her see the TV series unfold. She’s enjoying the multi-pronged process, developing the characters and the narrative in more detail and taking the play’s voice into its different forms.

“It’s nice to go back to earlier drafts and see what I can pick up again for the longer form novels and TV series.”

Her experience as an actor is helping the screenplay evolve. “I’m quite studious,” she explains. “As an actor I live through notes. I love notes, the critiquing, and [how] I will apply them. It takes longer and if what’s suggested doesn’t work I’ll throw them out. But I can show that I’ve read them and taken the ideas on board. [And] when it does work, it makes the process faster and the story sticks better. I received second draft notes on the feature from our UK producers and I read them and thought, ‘yes I can see this’. From there the screenplay fell into place.”

Asked if she always thought that The Drover's Wife would be such a success, Purcell says that there’s a gut feeling when something is right.

“I did have a sense writing the play that it was [as] good as it was fast. In a ‘spew’ [as she calls it] for the first draft I wrote the first act in five days then took two days to write act two. Bain read it and said, ‘there’s something special here’. I then sit on it and work to make it better and better.”

“I’m an intuitive and instinctive writer.

“A writer has to let the work sing. You know when it’s right – it’s alive and it’s breathing.”

Asked if she’d consider hiring anyone for the lead or to direct the film, Purcell is emphatic. “I’m not giving it to anyone else as its too precious to me. It’s my black story.”

And she talks about coincidences that sprung up around the project as being “a gift” and the way it’s come together as “a blessing”. Even the timing with the #metoo and #timesup movements and the global discussion around gender parity is ripe for her new version of The Drover's Wife.

It all started after an arduous and frustrating session directing writers at a writing workshop, when she felt the need to write and fell upon her mother’s copy of Lawson’s short stories sticking out of her bookshelf. In a lightbulb moment she said, “that’s it. That’s the story I need to tell.”

“The phrase, ‘Black Mary, the whitest gin in all the land’, written by Lawson, stuck in my mind. That’s me—I’m a fair-skinned gin. Taking that and allowing the wife to possibly have a black mother opened it up for me.”

Purcell’s mother’s edition of Henry Lawson’s short stories was published in 1892 – the first year of its publication. 1892 was the same year that her great-grandfather was given to a South African circus. His story informed the character Yadaka, who becomes the play’s black hero.

“I want to put my black pepper on anything I touch. I’m always asking how can I put my blackness though this. I love history and if I can tell a story that can also tell my Indigenous heritage and culture then I’ll absolutely do it,” Purcell contends.

Then in 2006 when while working on Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne, Purcell knew that the dramatic sweep of the country around the Monaro and the Snowy Mountains was the right place to tell her version of The Drover's Wife. Fast forward to 2018 and Purcell’s team is scouting for locations in the region to film there.

It’s perhaps also no accident that Purcell cites Lawrence as her directing influence and mentor.

For all its billing and success as a “taut thriller of our pioneering past, with a black sting to the tail” Purcell’s favourite line in the play talks about beauty. “’Her skin oiled with Bogong moth fat, shining like a full moon. When she danced … smooth like shallow runnin’ water over river rocks.’ I’d never heard a black man talk about black women like that.”

Politics notwithstanding, she says her story is a tale about love, life, happiness and justice for women who have suffered.

“This story came to me for a reason. It’s time for change and when justice is done, then the change has come.”