Anyone who has seen Leah Purcell perform understands why she’s often described as a “force of nature”. She’s the woman who can chew up the stage playing former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or playing Llorca’s ‘Death’ in Blood Wedding. In live interviews and profile pieces she presents as a tough-minded wait-for-no-one producer, actor, writer – and now director (for Belvoir’s Radiance and Brothers Wreck, and ABC TV series Redfern Now and Cleverman).
“I’m always hustling,” says Purcell of her impressive career, which took off at the age of 27 with the one-woman autobiographical show Box The Pony. “Nothing’s ever been easy – apart from sitting down and writing The Drover’s Wife in seven days; that’s as easy as it has got.”
That The Drover’s Wife poured out of Purcell’s mind onto the page so easily is hardly surprising: an adaptation of Henry Lawson’s popular short story from 1892, the script is seeped in her personal and family history; and it’s something she’s been thinking about adapting since 2005, when she was filming Ray Lawrence’s film Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains region of New South Wales – territory that evoked the dense bushland of Lawson’s tale.
The Drover’s Wife pitches its camp with a wife and mother of four whose safety is threatened when a black snake finds its way into her shanty. During the long night while she waits for it to emerge – and be killed by either herself or the family dog Alligator – the drover’s wife recalls various episodes from her life: a grifter who stacked her wood-heap hollow; a traveller who demanded food and had to be scared off with help from Alligator; a flood that broke the dam – and almost her spirit.
Purcell, who grew up the youngest of seven in smalltown Queensland, recalls, “I was a mongrel sleeper, so I was always nudging [my mum] late at night and asking her to read me that story.” In the little girl’s mind, she was the young boy in Lawson’s tale who exclaims at its conclusion, “Mother, I won’t never go drovin’ blarst me if I do!”
Having already mastered the monologue form in Box The Pony and her stage and screen work Black Chicks Talking, Purcell knew that she didn’t want to take that obvious route with Lawson’s story. She also wanted to focus on the men in her family.
Her adaptation brings the episodes and characters of the story to life, and weaves the story of her Indigenous great grandfather (a Guugu Yimithirr man from North Queensland) into the narrative as a stranger who turns up at the shanty in trouble and looking for help. Lawson’s black snake becomes a human intruder, and a wild bullock who terrorises the household now stands in for the Drover. “I had to have a bad guy – so I made the Drover the bad guy, and the black fella is the hero,” says Purcell. “It’s a western with action, guns, and a bit of a romance.”
Meanwhile, Purcell plays the titular character, a pale-skinned woman who has grown up with her Scottish grandfather but doesn’t have a full picture of her family history.
On the door to the Belvoir rehearsal room for The Drover’s Wife is posted a Henry Lawson quote: It is quite time that our children were taught a little more about their country, for shame’s sake. “I've been very conscious that I’m taking an Australian classic and I’m messing with it,” says Purcell, “and I’ve asked myself ‘Do I have a right to do that?’ But then I saw that quote, and felt like ‘that’s Henry talking to me and saying ‘You go for it!’”