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Zahra Newman is taking on Maggie the Cat in STC's new production of a classic

Written by
Ben Neutze

There are some roles in the theatrical canon that certain actors have left so strong an imprint upon it can be hard to shake off. While Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t the first person to play Maggie in Tennessee Williams’ scorching hot, Mississippi-set family drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, her performance in the 1958 film set a template for the role that’s as much a blessing as it is a curse.

“Trying to run away from it, or pretending like it hasn’t happened before, is not helpful,” says Zahra Newman, who’s taking on Maggie opposite Hugo Weaving and Pamela Rabe in Sydney Theatre Company’s upcoming production.

“I think going ‘I have to do it completely differently to Elizabeth Taylor’ is as destructive as going ‘I should do it just like Elizabeth Taylor’. Which you’re never going to be able to do anyway.”

Newman is no stranger to stepping into shows and roles that are well known by their audiences.

“In the past, I’ve been surprised at how much audiences hold onto their ideas of a character like it’s their play – ‘how can you destroy my play and my character?’ – like they have some ownership over the presentation of it,” Newman says. “I hope that audiences come to the theatre because they want a new experience.”

The majority of Newman’s career has been in theatre, crossing freely between classics and contemporary works, as well as plays and musical theatre. Most recently, she appeared in the original Australian production of Broadway musical The Book of Mormon – stepping into a role for which Nikki M James won a Tony Award – and then had a critically acclaimed turn in Random, a gutsy and gripping one-woman British show at the tiny 80-seat downstairs theatre at Belvoir. After Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – performed in the 900-seat Roslyn Packer Theatre – she’s working with director and writer Declan Greene to create a new, intimate one-woman version of Wake in Fright to be performed in Melbourne.

Zahra Newman in Random
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Given her chameleon-like qualities, it’s easy to imagine Newman will be at home as Maggie, a vibrant and tenacious young woman who is very much an outsider in the rich, plantation-owning Pollitt family she marries into. Maggie is struggling with her alcoholic husband Brick, who is desperate to conceal the true nature of his relationship with footballer friend Skipper. Over the course of the show, Maggie is changed as she comes to understand the web of lies and deceit the Pollitt family have created.

Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director, Kip Williams, was attracted to Newman’s wit and the emotional depth she brings to every character she plays. The pair have worked together before, and his staging – which uses mirrors to create what Williams calls a “theatrical close-up” – is designed to reveal new sides to its characters.

“Maggie, in my mind, needs to be a combustible soul, but also somebody who isn’t to be messed with,” Williams says. “I’ve often seen Maggie portrayed as superficial or flippant, or as a kind of buzzing fly that’s got to be swatted away. But I think Maggie needs to be one of the central hearts of the piece, and her pain and her tragedy needs to be felt very deeply by the audience.”

It’s likely that casting a woman of colour like Newman, who lived in Jamaica until she was 14, will make parts of the play resonate in different ways. The colourblind casting of traditionally white plays has been a defining factor of Kip Williams’ artistic directorship of Sydney Theatre Company, one that Newman says is having a positive impact. “I think as someone in a position of power he has a responsibility to do that,” she says.

Zahra Newman and AJ Holmes in The Book of Mormon
Photograph: Jeff Busby

But there are certain things in the play that need to be considered when you cast a person of colour as Maggie and white actors as the Pollitt family – Mississippi was segregated at the time and the Pollitts’ extraordinary wealth would almost certainly have been helped by black slavery at some point.

Williams and Newman are both experienced in dealing with these contextual questions and say it’s something they’ll have to figure out during the rehearsal period. You can easily see how Maggie’s outsider status in this wealthy, established family might be further emphasised by Newman’s cultural identity – but she’d rather not highlight it too obviously.

“You don’t want to knock something over the head,” Newman says. “I also don’t want to be representative or politicised as a performer unless I’m in charge of my own politicisation. I want to be self-determined in that.”

Williams says that he cast Newman purely because she’s a phenomenal actor and great casting for the role. But he’s adamant that questions about segregation, discrimination, and the fact that plenty of white wealth has been built on the backs of people of colour, should always be considerations when tackling a classic like this one: “I think there’s every chance audiences will find those readings, and should find those readings in the piece, irrespective of who’s playing Maggie.”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from April 29 to June 8.

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