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The Leading Ladies of Melbourne

There are formidably talented women treading the boards all over Melbourne this autumn

Leading ladies feature image

What does it take to be a leading lady and carry a show on your shoulders? We speak to Anna Lise Phillips, the star of Melbourne Theatre Company's WildCatherine McClements, who is leading a nation in Bell Shakespeare's Antony and CleopatraSamantha Dodemaide, skipping down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Ozand Catherine Davies, making a splash in Malthouse's Going Down.

And if you're looking to see even more theatre, check out our guide to scoring cheap theatre tickets in Melbourne.

Wild MTC 2018 hero image
Photograph: Supplied

Anna Lise Phillips

plays Woman in Wild

Unlike some actors who live in the spotlight, Darwin-born Anna Lise Phillips is a private person. “I don’t even like it when I go into a shop and the shop attendant asks me about my day,” she says. “So the idea that my computer is watching me 24/7 and my phone is listening to me – it’s a bit terrifying.” British playwright Mike Bartlett’s Wild deals, in part, with questions of privacy and the rapid growth of surveillance. It takes place in a Moscow hotel where a man is hiding after whistleblowing on the US government and its mass surveillance of citizens. Phillips plays a mysterious woman  who arrives and tells the man she’s from WikiLeaks.

“It’s like Black Mirror except you don’t want to slit your wrists at the end”

Phillips says she was captivated by the play’s wit from the first page but is reluctant to reveal its twists and turns. “It’s kind of like Black Mirror on stage, except at the end you don’t want to slit your wrists,” she says. Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Wild marks Phillips’ first play in five years; she’s been based in LA for the last six, working across film and TV. “I’m a massive fan of writers, and the great thing about theatre is that the writer always comes first.”

The one thing I admire most about ‘Woman’: “Her intelligence. She’s very sharp and very funny. She’s like a genius clown; absolutely brilliant.”

Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Blvd, Southbank 3006. 03 8688 0800. $39-$124. May 5-Jun 9.

Samantha Dodemaide as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz
Photograph: Brian Geach

Samantha Dodemaide

plays Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

Anthony Warlow has top billing as the Wizard in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version of The Wizard of Oz, but it’s rising star Samantha Dodemaide who skips down the yellow brick road at every performance. After understudying in  Anything Goes, A Chorus Line and Singin’ in the Rain, the young performer got her breakthrough in this show. But there’s a shadow that still looms large over her performance: that of the leading lady who made Dorothy famous in the 1939 MGM film. “It wasn’t until I started doing a bit of publicity and people kept talking about stepping into Judy Garland’s shoes that it really hit home how well known and loved this role is,” she says. Dodemaide’s job is to make the character her own while honouring Garland’s legacy and also make the story translate to a 2,000-seat theatre in 2018. And then there’s the challenge of working with the two dogs who alternate the role of Toto (and occasionally upstage her). “I’m such an animal lover, I’m a vegetarian for that reason. But in my pocket I have to have bits of freshly cooked meat for the dogs.”

The one thing I admire most about Dorothy: “I love her courage. I love that she goes after what she wants but also has kindness. It’s how I want to live my life.”

Regent Theatre, 191 Collins St, Melbourne 3000. 03 9299 9800. $59.90-$169.90. May 15-Jul 1.

Catherine McClements in Antony and Cleopatra
Photograph: Pierre Toussaint

Catherine McClements

plays Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra

According to Catherine McClements, watching Antony and Cleopatra is a little like watching a Princess Diana documentary, glimpsing a life where love collided with politics. “Shakespeare is taking these big moments from history and showing how everything was behind closed doors.” The Egyptian queen is understood to have been a fierce leader and is believed to have killed herself by compelling an asp to bite her breast. It’s that extraordinary story that enticed McClements – a celebrated stage and screen actor – to return to Shakespeare 14 years after she last encountered the Bard in Belvoir’s Macbeth. Although her casting in this Bell Shakespeare production was met with excitement in theatrical circles, Cleopatra wasn’t necessarily a role the actor had longed to play. “I don’t think any female Shakespeare character is necessarily on the wishlist,” she says. “They’re troubling and tricky to pull off, but they’re also famous and you just always want to give it a go... Someone once said that Shakespeare is like actors’ heroin. It’s sort of true; it’s not necessarily good for you, but god, it’s addictive.”

The one thing I admire most about Cleopatra: “She’s able to rip herself out of the myth and create her own future.”

Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne 3004. 1300 182 183. $40-$92. Apr 26-May 13.

Going Down Malthouse 2018 featuring Catherine Davies hero shot photo credit: Zan Wimberley
Photograph: Zan Wimberley

Catherine Davies

plays Natalie in Going Down

Catherine Davies spent most of 2017 touring with Bell Shakespeare’s contemporary take on  The Merchant of Venice, but in 2018 she returns to her first passion: new Australian plays. Michele Lee’s Going Down – which Davies compares in style to the US TV comedy Broad City – follows Natalie Yang, an Asian-Australian writer thrown into an existential crisis, seeking to break free from the expectations of writers of her cultural background. “I want to think it came into my life right at the moment when I was questioning and interrogating everything to do with displacement and identity, but the truth is that could have been any time in my lifetime,” says Davies,  who like Natalie is a second-generation Asian woman. The play, a co-production between Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company, is full of sexually explicit humour that might seem daunting to deliver on stage. “An excellent clowning teacher once told me to be a good clown you had to ‘sit in the shit’,” Davies says. “Natalie is that personified. In fact, she’s neck deep in the metaphor. And I’m going to have to be right in there with her.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sweating at the thought of having the spotlight on not just me as an actor, but areas of my life that really affect me on a deep, personal level.”

The one thing I admire most about Natalie: “I’m often overly apologetic about my ideas, presence and lean on far more self-deprecating humour, whereas Natalie is a completely open vessel ... I think she’s incredibly brave.”

Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt St, Southbank 3006. 03 9685 5111. $35-$72. May 10-Jun 3.

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