The Hobart

Actor, Campaigner, Explorer Essie Davis

by Stephanie Williams
Actor, Campaigner, Explorer Essie Davis

Our geography seeps into our being. It can take grit to withstand chilling winters and stinging rain, isolated (even more so now) from some things that people interstate and overseas may take for granted. But people from Hobart have a certain way about them that can be both grounded and in flight at the same time.

Actor Essie Davis embodies this dichotomy. She grew up on the Eastern Shore with creative parents and lots of siblings, enjoying simple pleasures of beachcombing and wilderness exploration. Graduating from NIDA in the early 90’s, she built on her years of youth theatre in Tasmania to work with Bell Shakespeare straight out of drama school. Essie continued to earn critical acclaim and international awards, such as the Laurence Olivier Award for her performance in the National Theatre (UK) produc­tion of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. In more recent years her diverse body of screen work has continued to expand. You might recognise Essie from her lead role of Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, as the tormented, grieving Amelia in The Babadook or alongside Richard E. Grant in the mega-production Game of Thrones. She has also starred in a number of works directed by her husband, Justin Kurzel, most recently NITRAM, which opened late last month.

Essie and husband Justin Kurzel at the premiere of True History of the Kelly Gang

Almost two years ago now, I had the pleasure of spending the day with Essie for a story I was working on. So much has happened since then, with a global pandemic putting the brakes on most of Essie and Justin’s global work, but inspiring more local work. Essie is about to star in The Maids, the challenging 1947 play by French playwright Jean Genet, alongside fellow Australian actors Marta Dusseldorp and Stephanie Jack and produced by Archipelago Productions. This is Essie’s first play in Hobart since graduating drama school and her first in some time. “I haven’t done a play for twelve years so it’s really challenging to come in with such a dense piece of text but I have fellow actresses who are passionate and interested in exploring the work together.” When asked why audiences, particularly female patrons, are jumping on tickets in the lead up to The Maids, Essie shares, “Women in Hobart are intelligent and are wanting a night out to enjoy something like this play. Genet isn’t easy and is complex.”

Clockwise from left: Marta Dusseldorp, Stephanie Jack and Essie Davis in the Maids. Pic: Adam Gibson

“It’s a present for the here and now. You’re either there for it or you’re not, you saw it or you didn’t. The gift is that Marta and I are here together now, so we decided to put something together,” Essie said. “We get to give Hobart and Tasmania and whoever else is allowed in a pleasurable, challenging and exciting show, watching a couple of damn good actresses muck around on stage together!”

Essie and Justin continue to challenge audiences with their creative partnerships. NITRAM depicts the events leading up to one of the darkest chapters in Australian history in an attempt to understand why and how the atrocity at Port Arthur occurred. In the film, Essie plays the role of Helen Mary Elizabeth Harvey. While the film recently won big internationally at the Cannes Film Festival, locally the subject matter has proven controver­sial. “Back when the project was seeking funding, there were media reports of government representatives not wanting to meet with the artists behind it,” Essie said. “I feel judging a piece of work that you know nothing about, that hasn’t been made yet, is a blinkered way of living life. If this was the case, I would’ve hoped they might’ve been interested in meeting some artists to, at the very least, talk about their potential concerns. I was surprised at the seeming lack of support for a project, when private investors were jumping to make this really adventurous and beautiful script.”

NITRAM was filmed during the pandemic, in a bubble in Geelong. “People came in from Tassie, Melbourne, Sydney, and we all played our roles. As each of our final scenes finished, we were released from the bubble,” Essie said. And does Essie think it should be prescribed viewing for Tasmanians? “It’s not something to be scared of, but I don’t want people to watch it if they don’t want to. It’s sensitively told and is a reminder of why we need strong gun laws.”

Essie as Helen in NITRAM
Justin directing Essie in NITRAM

“It is really important that we don’t forget that this happened. I was nervous about making it, Justin and I were both extremely nervous about making it. But this is not a celebration, and it is not an eyewitness re-enactment, it has very little violence in it.”

Essie has also managed to complete a project in Canada during the pandemic. “It became a bit stressful because Morrison announced they were cutting down on Australians returning from overseas. While I was away, Justin suddenly was called upon to go to Cannes (for NITRAM) so we had to piece together the care of our kids with our beautiful friends and family. And we eventually both got back just in the nick of time!”

In recent times, Essie has become a vocal campaigner to halt the expansion of salmon farming in Tasmania, after noticing a decline in sea life and an increase in algae and “Every time you crossed on the ferry to Bruny, you’d sail past a dolphin. He’d be swimming along beside you. I haven’t seen a dolphin in there for a very long time.” Upon moving to Bruny Island Essie and Justin became aware of the local sentiment. “We discovered more and more people who had been complaining for years and being affected by it in all different ways.” Essie said. “Justin decided to make a documentary and Flan (friend and writer Richard Flanagan) said, “right, I’m going to write an article about this.” The more people were asked, they said, “you must talk to so and so.” And it developed into the book Toxic.”

Driven by a fear that sea life may be lost to her children to explore, Essie has continued to campaign. “We were just trying to get them to silence their generators and try and keep a lid on the noise of their boats and their lights. I was getting more and more worried about the sea-life and the lack of it,” Essie said. “I know there’s so much to fight for, particularly in Tasmania, and I will keep on fighting for those things, even though I don’t want to be an activist. I just wanted to have a beautiful, lovely, quiet time looking at rock pools with my children.” When asked what would a good outcome would look like, Essie said, “Moving operations well in-land with a completely independent regulator who cares about the environment and the science, and listens to the scientists, because they have largely been ignored.”

It’s obvious that her love for and of Tasmania runs deep – across storytelling, acting, campaigning and exploring. And her upcoming local work is evident of that – after trying for many years to get quality productions to our state. “I tried often to get productions to tour Tasmania. It was always a promise that never eventuated or it was too hard for them. It’s really exciting to do a piece of theatre for Tasmanians, in Tasmania, especially in a time when so many companies can’t bring their work here. And I’m really proud of that and NITRAM. I’d really love people to see it but no pressure.

Ahead of The Maids opening night, of Marta, Essie shares, “It’s a pleasure to work with another fine actress and to really be challenged by the text and together be nutting it out. It’s really lovely to be able to go into rehearsal space in Hobart and work professionally.”

Love this

Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Close
Exploring Tassie These Winter School Holidays
We know that staying indoors with the family isn’t always fun. And while it’s obviously cold outside, you’re only a puffer jacket and beanie away from being comfortable and ready to explore. There’s lots of family fun to be had in all sorts of weird and wonderful places across the state these school holidays.
Sand Surfing on the Peninsula
The half-day walk to Crescent Beach in the Tasman National Park offers so much- including epic sand dunes for surfing and incredible views.
27 Hobart Friends Get Snipping For One Off Wine
The borders were declared shut in Tasmania on the 30th of March, 2020; the first stare to do so amid the COVID- 19 pandemic and hard lockdown of Hobart followed.
Danphe Nepalese and Indian Food + Peppermint Bay Bar and Bistro
Nepalese food is a comfort in our house. Having spent much time trekking and mountain climbing in Nepal as a younger man, Nepalese food is something I always love to go back to.
That’s DR Hannah Gadsby To You
From Smithton to Netflix and the Emmys stage, Tasmanian stand up comic Hannah Gadsby has forged an unlikely path. Following on from the massive success of her shows Nanette and Douglas, Hannah brings her new show Body of Work to Hobart this month.
PODCAST: Incat founder Robert Clifford on why electric boats are the future
Robert Clifford is the founder of Incat, a Hobart company building fast ferries for the world. Always looking to future opportunities, he has identified where Hobart sits in the next wave of transportation. For more of this interview listen to The Hobart Magazine podcast.
Is Tourism Ready For More Forestry Wars?
Tasmanian forests are special. They’re home to centuries-old trees, including the tallest flowering trees on the planet, and support unique native species. Yet not everyone agrees on how these forests should be managed.
Hobart Chefs: When The Obsession Becomes Real
Tasmania’s brand as a foodie haven is cemented. But within the local hospitality industry there are those who love to use local produce...and those who are next-level obsessed with it. We spoke to a bunch of Hobart chefs who are top of the game when it comes to fostering relationships with local farmers and growers.
Did You Know Australia’s First Female Doctor Was Hobartian?
Tasmania, despite its small size and population in comparison to the mainland, has produced more than its proportionally predicted percentage of significant figures and heroes of Australian history. 
Return Travellers Adding Pressure to Hobart Housing
For all of us 2020 was a year like no other, punctuated by rapid change and plenty of new challenges. For vulnerable people in Tasmania, including people facing homelessness, those on low incomes and those facing increasingly higher rents, it was very challenging. We are seeing a growing demand for homes in Tassie from international travellers returning home, people moving for work and others seeking the lifestyle that our Apple Isle has to offer.
Magazine
AboutContributeAdvertiseNewsletter Sign UpContact
November 2021

Stay up to date with everything happening at the Hobart Magazine.

Thank you to Luke Brokensha for mobilising his friends and local residents recently to host two rubbish clean ups along the Hobart Rivulet after heavy rains.
The warm weather returns...hello summer.
Need a laugh? Check out @theinspiredunemployed feed on Instagram.
Moto Vecchia Cafe in Bellerive and Czegs Cafe in Richmond have joined the Clarence City Council dementia program, creating dementia-friendly spaces for all patrons.
It’s hard to believe it’s not standard practice to have a working phone in every aged care room - shared phones make private conversations impossible and increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Tacks on the tracks. Mountain bikers beware of tacks being left on certain tracks on the mountain.
Just when you think your cousins are alright. NZ Opposition Leader Judith Collins took aim at Tassie during her recent (unsuccessful) campaign, calling us Australia’s “poor cousin.” She also seems worried about us nabbing tech businesses, “It’s a lovely part of the world but do you necessarily want to go there with your high- tech business? Possibly not,” she said. We beg to differ!