Robyn Nevin has carved out an enviable career since first graduating from NIDA in 1960. Highly regarded as one of Australia’s finest stage performers, and indeed, “theatre royalty” Robyn Nevin has extensive list of both stage and film credits, not only as an award winning performer, but also director, producer, artistic director and CEO. Her contributions to the performing arts were recognised with Nevin being awarded the Member of the Order of Australia.
Robyn Nevin is very selective about the roles she accepts.
“I’ve never really done any material that I haven’t found challenging and interesting and worth doing. Nearly all of the stuff that I do, except for screen work, comes from a classic repertoire. It’s lasted for generations, and centuries in some cases, because of what it offers to audiences. I’ve never done much frivolous, light-weight stuff. I’m not interested in projects that don’t have some heft to them,” explained Nevin.
Robyn Nevin’s latest role work is portraying Brunhilde Pomsel in A German Life. Described as an “extraordinary theatrical tour–de–force” this powerful play tells the story of an unassuming German woman who worked in Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. Brunhilde Pomsel struggled to make ends meet as a secretary in Berlin during the 1930s. Her many employers included a Jewish insurance broker, the German Broadcasting Corporation and eventually Goebbels, before she emerged from the rubble near Hitler’s bunker waving a white pillowcase to the approaching Russian troops in April 1945. Brunhilde Pomsel’s personal testimony was captured in a documentary in 2014, when Pomsel was 103 years old and then adapted into a play by Christopher Hampton.
Robyn Nevin was drawn to the authenticity of A German Life.
“It’s the voice of a woman who lived through two world wars and worked closely with the Nazi leadership. I found that completely fascinating – and I found it fascinating that while she talks with some degree of genuine horror about the Nazis, ten minutes later, or ten minutes before, she denies all knowledge of the horrors that were being acted out,” commented Nevin.
“And also I found it fascinating that she was able, at her age, to talk with such clarity about details from so long ago and also a sense of relish. It seemed to me she also appreciated the fact that she had someone listening to her story – and that’s a very powerful form of suggestion. It’s probably the purest form of theatre there is – just one person telling a story to an audience, because it’s like all of us . We all love listening to people’s stories – whether it’s gossip or drama or light history or whatever it is – that’s how we communicate … To listen to others stories, it’s what makes us human.”
A German Life is a 90 minute, one woman play. To prepare for the role, Robyn Nevin watched a lot of Nazi propaganda and historical films, as well as archival footage from the second world war, although she acknowledges it was already history she knew.
“I knew it all anyway – you do know it – but it helps to see it very vividly. It helps to really see it and understand and know what she was talking about,” said Nevin.
“But I didn’t do any research about the woman – it’s the woman’s own voice – it’s her own story. So all I had to do was learn 10,000 words and find a voice for her – an accent. She’s German and we’re imagining that she’s talking to an English speaking audience in English. Because of that I needed some sense of her being German.”
Robyn Nevin explained it’s also helpful to move away from using your own voice.
“Because with a one woman show there’s every chance you’ll bore yourself to tears – just the constant sound of your own voice!” laughed Nevin.
I asked Nevin about the experience of performing a one woman show .
“Well, to state the obvious, it’s lonely! You are alone. You have no one to share any of it with, and sharing is very much part of working in the theatre. It’s very much a collective way of working. You’re connected in so many ways, because there’s so much tension and nervous strain involved in this work and sharing that can be very helpful. So I am very lonely!” Nevin said, with a wry laugh.
It’s also a very demanding role.
“It’s very draining. I mean, it’s exhausting being the only one for an hour and a half talking! One of the hardest aspects of playing the role is containing the emotion; holding it back, reigning it in, not letting it out. And that takes energy and it’s quite stressful. It’s a pretty strenuous, harrowing time! Well, not harrowing, but it’s a strenuous job and it takes a lot out of me.”
However, it’s not all bad. Nevin pointed out the advantages of a one-woman show.
“On the other hand, the relationship with the audience is very pure and very strong. The bond that you form with the audience on the night, in the moment, is very rewarding.”
It was during the COVID period in 2020 that Robyn Nevin learnt the script.
“It took me months. I did it through COVID. Everything was effected by COVID, so it meant the rehearsal was disrupted and we had to break it up into various sections of time. We couldn’t have one continuous rehearsal period, so I had a lot of preparation time alone and I learnt it on my own at home. When we started rehearsals I got up and did it on the first day!”
Robyn Nevin spent much of her time learning the script in her garden.
“It’s interesting – sometimes on stage I have a memory of where I was when I was learning that particular section of the play and it takes me right back to the particular tree I was sitting under, or what the weather was like and the sound of the birds!”
A German Life had its Australian premiere in Adelaide at the Adelaide Festival, receiving great critical acclaim. In between each season, Nevin reconnects with the story daily and she admits that the role shifts a little with each new season.
“Every day I say the words to myself from some part of the play or another. I can’t do the whole 90 minutes of the play every day. I just can’t! It’s too tiring. But I connect with the play every day and I think the more you do it, the more lived in, you sit more deeply within it and then it emerges a little bit differently because you become more comfortable with it and you find new ways of doing it so it does shift … it shifts over time.”
Robyn Nevin hopes A German Life will appeal to a wide audience as she feels it’s an important story that needs to be heard and despite being a story about Nazi Germany, has direct correlations to current world politics.
In fact, it is those comparisons to current world events that attracted Robyn Nevin to this role. The question at the heart of A German Life is whether Brunhilde Pomsel was in fact innocent or culpable? It will raise confronting questions for audience members, with clear parallels to consider in our current world.
“I couldn’t be bothered if it was just a fairy story from a long time ago that bore no relation to anything. It might be entertaining in its own right, but in the context of the world we’re in now, we only have to look at America to see the path they’ve followed in the last few years and where they’re at now – all because of so called fake news and extraordinary pronouncements by the last President, whose name I won’t give any air time,” declared Nevin.
“It’s a slippery slope – I keep using that phrase – it’s very pertinent and relevant. But (A German Life) is a very timely piece and relevant. That’s why I want it to reach a broad audience.”
A German Life is now playing at Canberra’s Playhouse before an Australian tour.
Venue: Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre
Season: 11–16 May
Performance Times: Tues–Sat 7:30pm, Sat mat 2pm, Sun 1pm and 6pm
Duration: 90 mins (no interval)
Prices:From $69 (Transaction fees apply)
Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or (02) 6275 2700
Venue: Playhouse, QPAC
Season: 2–20 June
Performance Times: Tues 6:30pm (8 June only), Wed–Sat 7:30pm, Wed mat 1pm, Sat mat 2pm, Sun 1pm & 6pm
Duration: 90 mins (no interval)
Prices:From $79 (Transaction fees apply)
Bookings: qpac.com.au or phone 136 246
Venue: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Season: 21 July–15 August
Performance Times: Wed–Sat 7:30pm, Wed mat 1pm, Sat mat 2pm, Sun 1pm and 6pm
Duration: 90 mins (no interval)
Prices: From $79 (Transaction fees apply)
Bookings: artscentremelbourne.com.au or 1300 182 183
Season details to be announced shortly
Waitlist now at agermanlife.com.au