Razorhurst at the Hayes Theatre
From the 1920s until the 1930s, two vice queens, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, ruled the Darlinghurst underworld. Their rivalry was infamous, leading to a litany of violent crimes enacted by their razor gangs as each struggled to gain dominance in a world of sly grog, narcotics and prostitution.
Razorhurst explores what it means to be a woman in a man’s world, forced into a life of crime by circumstance. At turns crass and hilarious, Razorhurst is a “compelling meditation on the explosive cocktail of gender, class, and power underlying an infamous period in the history of crime” (Newark Star-Ledger).
Rosie spoke with performer Amelia Cormack about this exciting new show, and why it's so important for us to see in 2019. Read the full interview below:
With an extensive career in Theatre, screen and music you’ve worked throughout Australia, the UK and the US. What about this local story drew you to this production?
I have been wanting to do something at The Hayes for a long time, as I have been watching its development and incredible growth from afar, and been so impressed by the productions it stages. I haven’t done a show in Australia since I left 8 years ago, so this seemed like the perfect project to come home for. I am fascinated by true crime, and have heard the story of Tilly and Kate told a number of ways. They are such unique characters as, at the time, there are very few places where women had such power over the underworld. In America it’s men like Al Capone, but here it’s 2 fearless and tough women. And that’s really cool. To also have the opportunity to tell the story in the heart of where lot of these events went down is very special. Tilly’s main brothel was at Palmer St, Darlinghurst; Kate’s house on Devonshire St, Surry Hills. It’s a very local story.
In this Australian premiere, you play proclaimed ‘vice queen’ Tilly Divine, a notorious figure in the local criminal underworld. How did you choose to approach your research and portrayal of this real-life character?
As a performer, I LOVE being in research mode. And especially when there is such a wealth of information on these women, it allows me to really dive deep. I read a lot - my main sources were ‘Razor’, by Larry Writer and Leigh Straw’s book on Lillian Armfield. Underbelly also did a series called ‘Razor’ based on Larry Writer’s book, which really helped me to bring this world to life. We’re playing Tilly and Kate throughout their lives rather than just their prime, but it was good to get a sense of what this violence between them would have really looked like. We also have a lot of pictures of Tilly and Kate, during the good times and bad, in our rehearsal room so it’s great to have a constant reference to go back to. It’s also important to me to find Tilly’s physicality - how her profession would have affected the way she stood and moved at various points of her life. Both Deb and I play multiple characters in the show, so it’s crucial to find their individual physicalities, what distinguishes them from each other.
With the themes of female empowerment and the search for self-actualisation in a male-centric world and time, why do you think it is important for this show to be seen in 2019?
I think this story is coming at such an important time for women. We’re speaking out more, finding our voices grow stronger when we have previously been told to stay silent. Tilly and Kate were two women who spoke as they pleased, regardless of the consequences. At a time when women barely had a voice, or even a choice over the paths their lives would take, here are 2 women who wrote their own rules, did whatever they wanted. Their strength, fearlessness and tenacity are truly awesome to behold, and an example to those of us who sometimes feel fearful, especially in this day and age. If they could do it then, we can do it now.
Starring in a two-woman musical can require some heavy lifting. Were there any unique challenges to this production? How was it to team up with Debora Krizak?
This is definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Usually in a show with more people, you’ll have a little more downtime, chances to look over the material and collect your thoughts. When there’s just 2 of you, there’s very little work that can be done without the other, so you have to be on and ready all the time. It’s quite exhausting. I’ve done a one-woman cabaret show, but that’s a little easier as you can take it at your own pace - you don’t have another person relying on you this heavily. But Deb and I are pretty good at checking in with each other, seeing what the other needs to get the scene or moment right for themselves. It’s a lot of give and take, but we’ve clicked into that pretty quickly. Deb is a dream to work with - she’s funny and brave and fierce, and I’m learning so much from her about crafting comedic moments. Her timing is impeccable, and she really takes her time to create the character from the ground up. Doing something like this can be very intense, so we make sure we give each other as much love as we can outside of these intensely combative scenes.
The original production saw its world premiere in New Jersey last year. Do you feel there will be any differences in how the audiences will react? What differences would there be for a foreign audience vs a directly relevant Sydney audience?
I think the audience reaction will be quite different here. The story will mean a lot more to our audiences as it all happened in their backyard. Also I think Australians will identify a lot more strongly with the roguishness of these characters. Criminality is woven into the fabric of our history - it’s where our colonial nationhood started, unlike the East Coast of the US where the Puritans played such a significant role in that country’s foundation. I also think Australians love an underdog and these two women most definitely started out that way.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Musical - Seeing iOTA as Hedwig in Hedwig and The Angry Inch at Newtown RSL. Play - Jerusalem starring Mark Rylance on Broadway
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Safari in Tanzania
Dream show to perform in?
Plays or musicals?
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Playing my instruments - violin, piano, guitar, and mandolin
What’s next for you after this show?
A beautiful new actor/musician show by Douglas Lyons and Ethan Pakchar called Beau, for the Adirondack Theate Festival in upstate New York.
Razorhurst is currently running at the Hayes Theatre until 13th July, 2019. The season is sold out, but for more information, and to check back in case more tickets become available, visit the Hayes website.