Matt Backer on the fabulous frocks and brutal violence of new Australian play Ladies Day

Ladies Day takes its audience to the festivities of the Broome races, complete with swishy hemlines, debonair gents and fascinators galore. Amongst the fabulous frocks is a brutal act of violence. It’s a play that is really funny until it’s not.

We caught up with Matt Backer, who stars in the world premiere of this new Australian work, to take us inside this richly evocative play and discuss the importance of its vivid messages.

Could you give us a quick overview of Ladies Day?

It all takes place in Broome and kicks off at the annual Ladies Day races held there, a day full of fun and frivolity, where two best mates, Sydney-based Mike and Broome-based Liam are reconnecting before a brutal act of violence shatters their friendship apart.

The playwright Alana Valentine spent months interviewing the gay community in Broome to ensure the play she created has a firm basis in the reality of the situation. How do you think this impacts on the production?

I think one of the most important things about being an actor is to always remember with whatever character you’re playing, chances are someone in this great, big, wide world of ours has gone through or is going through what your character is experiencing. So you’re essentially telling that real person’s story. And that makes it all very real. So when it came to this play, you couldn’t help but be reminded every few pages that Alana has drawn inspiration from real people and real stories and real truths and that’s quite a driving force to hook into to be as real as possible; to do justice to these humans.

What do you see as the main differences between portraying a fictional production and one that navigates “true stories” such as this?

To me, the main difference comes when delivering verbatim text. Again, there’s really no difference when portraying a fictional character to a ‘real’ character per say, because the same amount of truth should go into both. One shouldn’t be more real than the other, as how do I know that this fictional character’s story isn’t happening right now to someone somewhere in the world? But verbatim text can be tricky as our everyday speech patterns are often very disjointed and scattered. We make it up as we speak.

Playwrights usually attempt to get this flow and casual speech pattern down on paper but there’s always going to be a theatrical flow to it all. The wonderful challenge with Alana’s writing and verbatim speeches is unlocking what that person’s speech pattern is and essentially working out their punctuation and personality.

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How different is it working on something like a new Australian work in comparison to established works such as Orlando or Shakepeare’s The Tempest which you worked on last year?

Rather different. We’re talking about Shakespeare here and then Orlando was highly theatrical and poetic. You had to really invest in the grandeur of it all. With a new Australian work, such as this, you have to bring it back slightly to our everyday speech patterns and especially in an incredibly intimate space like the Griffin, you have to wrestle the performance down to something a tad more subtle; the audience is only an arm’s width away so you can allow them to just read your thoughts more often than not. You’re not filling the Drama Theatre at the Opera House for example but the same energy is needed, just in a more redirected, intimate way.

The production is described at being “really funny – until it’s not”. How do you balance this so that it is not jarring, or just jarring enough, for the audience?

I always just think about life in general. Life is terribly funny one minute and ghastly the next and it oscillates between the two. We cannot have lightness without darkness and that’s what Alana’s play is like: a journey between these two elements, often back and forth within the one scene. But I also hope that the audience is actually jarred, in a theatrical way, as there are definite moments that are jarring for us to do as actors on stage, so I would hope that these abrupt moments in tone shake the audience as well.

What was most important to you in delivering this play?

Truth in delivery. The play touches on some tough issues, issues that, statistically, will resonate very deeply with at least a few audience members each and every night, and you have to keep them in mind when delivering the play, as you are their voice in that shadowy, communal space. For an hour and half, the voiceless have a voice and that’s what I believe is one of Alana’s main drives for working on verbatim-esque theatre: making the invisible in our society visible.

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And finally, tell us. How fabulous are the frocks?

You can’t have a play called Ladies Day without whipping out something fabulous. You gotta give the masses what they want, right?! With James Browne as our set and costume designer, we were guaranteed something fab and fierce, and he’s definitely come through with the goods.

Matt will be performing in Ladies Day at Griffin Theatre in Sydney. The production is showing now until the 26th March. For more information & to book visit www.griffintheatre.com.au