There is something very likeable about Esther Hannaford. Already the recipient of two Green Room Awards (Best Leading Actress in a Musical as Amy in Once We Lived Here and Best Actress in a Supporting Role as Penny in Hairspray) and a Helpmann Award (Penny, Hairspray) Hannaford has already proven her talent. But despite the awards, Esther Hannaford is hardly a household name yet – and the important word here is “yet,” King Kong director Daniel Kramer is very quick to point out. Hannaford is about to open in the biggest role of her life: Ann Darrow in the world premiere of King Kong. If the audience reviews from the preview shows are anything to go by, Esther Hannaford is about to become a well known name.
But there is nothing diva-like about Hannaford. In fact she is very humble and grateful to have been selected for this role. It is an incredible opportunity for this young performer, but she is not looking at the likely fame and recognition that comes with such a significant leading role. What Hannaford is enjoying is the opportunity to be part of the creative process of a premiere work.
There is an incredible excitement in Hannaford's voice as she talks about this production, describing it as a brave retelling and reinvention of a classic myth. It is clear she is proud to be part of what she calls a “courageous work.” It's not surprising for a performer who is inspired by people who can combine work and art but keep evolving and growing it; artists such as Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork.
To prepare for the role of Ann Darrow, Hannaford watched part of the Peter Jackson movie version of King Kong, but decided to stop watching and focus on her own creativity and interpretation. Instead, she read the novel to gain a deeper understanding of her character. Director Daniel Kramer suggested Hannaford watch Funny Girl and use the character of Fanny Brice as inspiration. Ironically, this was a nickname given to Hannaford as a child, she thinks because of the funny faces she used to pull to her family.
Unknown to Hannaford, Kramer would love to be involved in a production of Funny Girl with Hannaford in the leading role. Kramer believes Hannaford would be the perfect Fanny Brice and sees this current role in King Kong as the one that will truly launch her career and make her a household name. Hannaford is trying not to think about the enormity of this role as opening night approaches. It is clear Hannaford is a hard working and committed performer who respects the whole team behind King Kong and the creative process.
Describing herself as “not a girly-girl” Hannaford has an array of stunning costumes for her role as Ann Darrow. She is somewhat embarrassed as she quietly and almost awkwardly refers to some of the costumes as “dare I say … sexy!” But she said slipping into the gowns and donning the wigs helps to ease her into the mood of her character. Hannaford's favourite outfit is the test screen dress which she says instantly makes her feel like a glamorous star.
Hannaford has a hauntingly beautiful, and oh so easy to listen to, singing voice. A voice that gently penetrates the soul and leaves you wanting to hear more. What she loves the most is she can sing in her normal singing voice for the first time. She can sing as Ann Darrow the same way that she sings her own songs as Esther Hannaford. Hannaford describes the music as rich, luscious and emotive, with a wide range of music styles to accommodate many different tastes in music. While Hannaford also enjoys traditional forms of musical theatre she is loving being part of something so new and innovative … particularly to be able to do this in Australia.
Playing the role of Ann Darrow involves aerial work, which Hannaford had never experienced before. And of course this includes the iconic moment of being picked up and held in the hand of King Kong, the 6 metre tall, 1.1 tonne giant silverback gorilla puppet. Hannaford describes this moment as being very surreal. Her first rehearsals were with an actor standing in as King Kong. This allowed Hannaford to get the emotional aspects of her character right before moving to working with an animatronic version and then the puppet. Hannaford describes her first reaction at seeing King Kong in action was to feel “exceptionally happy with the amount of design and creativity.”
Hannaford feels honoured to be able to play this role. She talks about her fondness for her King's Men – the incredibly talented acrobatic puppeteers who masterfully make the giant gorilla move (in addition to the Voodoo operators off stage.) She says there is a very masculine presence in this show and despite working with a giant puppet, there is also such a human element to make it all work. She is very conscious of their presence as she is performing. Beneath the music she can hear the grunting and feel the amount of energy and effort coming from this team of King's Men, which gives not only a sense of safety but also assures her the entire team is working tremendously hard. During the performance Hannaford does not see the puppeteers at work – her eyes are firmly placed on King Kong.
With a Meryl Streep like quality, Hannaford seems to be able to completely embody and disappear into her character. There is nothing in Ann Darrow that even remotely resembles her award winning character of Penny Pingleton. And it's quite possible that, without the wigs and glamorous costumes, she may even be unrecognised along the streets of Melbourne as leaves the theatre. As opening night approaches, and our latest leading lady takes to the stage, it won't be long before the name and person Esther Hannaford is instantly recognised. But no doubt, Hannaford will remain humble, grateful and appreciative … and we'll love her even more!
King Kong opens on Saturday 15th June. For more information and tickets go: www.kingkongliveonstage.com