Purcell’s retelling of the Lawson story through an Indigenous lens now includes a book, film and play. In Lawson’s version, the drover was a good guy. In Purcell’s, he is not, a reality in part inspired by her experiences as a young woman in an abusive relationship.
We’re dining at Fatto, near the Arts Centre; the Italian restaurant is buzzing on this Friday and at one point a fellow diner stops by to tell Purcell how much she admires her work. Purcell, best known for Wentworth, Lantana and Redfern Now, has just finished directing The Drover’s Wife: the legend of Molly Johnson, her first as a director, which grew out of her successful theatre show.
Much of the shoot took place in the Yaouk Valley in the Snowy Monaro region, a stunning part of New South Wales. It was a fabulous experience, though hugely demanding for a first-time director simultaneously playing the titular role. Surely a holiday is in order?
“Probably … in June I’ll be able to calm down,” she says. “I’m no good at relaxing when I know there are things to do.” Filming for the next season of Wentworth is looming, and her book tour is currently underway.
Purcell laments that her mother died before the Drover’s Wife project was underway. “She was my mother, she was my father, she was my hero. She was a drover when she was a young woman; her father was a drover. Me being the youngest, I guess it was my responsibility to look after her. She drank a little bit, she was drowning her sorrows of life. I looked after her and my nana, so that’s how I related to the story and it just stayed with me for 42 years.”
Part of the story’s timeless appeal is the central character, the mother working tirelessly to care for and feed her children, protecting them from threats both natural and man-made, making the most of the meagre provisions at hand. For Purcell, that universality of experience is key.
“Whether you’re black, white or brindle, everyone has a woman who is a tower of strength,” she says. “Everyone has had some sort of experience with a mum like that – or missed out on that.”
As a teenager, Purcell was in an abusive relationship and fell pregnant at 17. A month after her daughter was born, Purcell’s beloved mother, a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman, died.
“I had to pull my socks up and go, ‘OK, I’ve got to get myself together.’ I guess for a little bit there I copied what my mother did and turned to the bottle for a little bit, but I didn’t want to do that because I’d grown up in pubs. I didn’t want that for my daughter. Before she died, my mother said, ‘That’s your kid, look after her.’ And I took that to heart.”
Leaving Murgon was her only way out; she packed up her yellow Datsun Sunny and took her baby to Merimbula and then Brisbane. “I had to for my own sanity, I was drinking a lot and I was having suicidal thoughts.”
Concern for her child kept her going and to this day she calls her ”my saviour”. At the moment, her daughter and two grandchildren live with Purcell and her partner of 28 years, Bain Stewart. They met soon after her arrival in Brisbane, for which she is eternally grateful. A strong sportswoman – she was once picked for the All Blacks netball team – Purcell trained as an aerobics instructor and that led to her meeting Stewart, who ran a martial arts gym and was a champion kickboxer.
Now her business partner in production company Oombarra Productions, Stewart is, she says, ”the ideas man; I just churn it all out”.
The women who came before her and the indignity they suffered serve as a constant motivator. “My grandmother was part of the stolen generation, on her papers she was subhuman. My mother was part of, I call it the lost generation, they weren’t allowed to be given the culture, it wasn’t allowed to be passed to them. They didn’t know who they were and how to fit into a Western world which rejected them. I looked at myself and thought, I’m born at a time when I can have a voice, I can prosper, and it would be a crime if I didn’t, because of what my mother and grandmother went through.”
We stop chatting to order – the barramundi for her and spanner crab pasta for me, plus the broccolini with roasted chickpeas to share.
The idea for returning to Lawson’s story came to her in 2006 while making the film Jindabyne, directed by Ray Lawrence. The beauty and grandeur of the landscape struck her; it was calling out to be featured on screen. “When we were up in Kosciuszko, I said, ‘I’m just putting it out here, while I’m on country, I’m going to be back here, I’m going to write something, I’m going to act in it. And I think it’s going to be The Drover’s Wife.’ And here we are, we just wrapped … so what a blessing from the ancestors.”
Purcell says she has written most of her lead roles, largely because people don’t know where to place her. “Because I’m fair-skinned. Because I’m such an activist, they put me in the black box and that’s fine as well.”
Rhoda Roberts encouraged Purcell to create her first show, Box The Pony, co-written with Scott Rankin and detailing her life to that point. The playis on the high school curriculum in New South Wales, along with Black Chicks Talking, a book and documentary she made in the early 2000s featuring interviews with nine Indigenous women. Purcell’s success as a writer is remarkable, given she missed a lot of primary school; she was busy looking after her mother and grandmother. “I had a bit of a pattern, pension days I wouldn’t come to school or I’d take off at lunchtime.”
Performing in the school play revealed her talent as an actor and a choreographer; later, she was the first student to direct a production. Outside of that, her attendance was patchy and her results suffered. “If I wasn’t performing, I was a C-average student.”
Lawson’s classic tale sat on a bookshelf for years, awaiting her attention. When that day came, rather than rereading it, she focused on her mother’s retelling. Within seven days, she had a script drafted – it subsequently won the Balnaves Scholarship for Indigenous Playwrights and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award. When the show opened at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre in 2016, it received a standing ovation and five encores; a national tour is planned.
A compulsive worker, Purcell wrote part of the script for The Drover’s Wife while filming Wentworth. “I was in the slot for a while, I had my computer and I was writing. People would ask, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m working! Then I’d come out and fight someone for a bit and then go back in…”
Purcell is not surprised by the strong interest in Indigenous stories apparent today. People are interested in our history as a country and want to learn; it’s human nature, she says. “Our history, this country’s history is black. It is ours, it’s everyone’s. Australians love a good yarn. As long as the yarn is good you can sprinkle your black pepper on it, you can sprinkle your Arabic pepper on it, you can sprinkle your whatever on it.”
The Drover’s Wife is out now, published by Penguin; The Drover’s Wife: the legend of Molly Johnson is set for release later this year.
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Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald