Jasmin Simmons: You recently appeared in a production of 1984, do you see any similarities between our world in Ditch and in Orwell’s?
Fiona Press: Yes! So many! Right down to tinned rations and Victory Gin – except in the Ditch world, we drink copious quantities of government-supplied whisky. And there’s no chocolate. Both worlds are governed by a fascistic totalitarian regime that controls the population by pitting the ’Security’ against ‘Civilian’ and turning both against the ‘Illegals’. The threat of amorphous foreign enemies rotates on a monthly basis (think Trump and North Korea) and there’s a touch of Margaret Atwood as well; women are controlled by having their reproductive rights totally denied.
Your character is somewhat of a mentor to mine, are there any women in our industry that have particularly inspired you?
Absolutely. First and most influential was the late Doreen Warburton, co-founder of the Q Theatre, which was my theatrical cradle. Doreen had been mentored by the legendary Joan Littlewood, and brought those same socialist and creative principles to bear in Penrith, which – at the time – had little cultural life. I spent three years attached to the Q, as a student, ASM, ran the box office, understudy (to Judy Davis, another enduring influence) – kind of an unofficial apprenticeship. Doreen was from Lancashire and was larger than life “with the bosom of a goddess and the carriage of an eagle” – PERFECT casting for Mrs Peel!
Do you share Mrs Peel’s green thumb?
Who doing indie theatre has time to garden?! I have a large messy block that’s basically a lizard and funnel web habitat at the moment. However, treat me nice and I might bake us a cake for tech week … my floury thumb is better than my green one.
My character, Megan, is just becoming politically aware, were you a politically aware teenager? Did you march and protest like Mrs Peel did when she was younger?
Oooh yeah – child of the 70s, me. That era defined my political convictions forever. With the Vietnam War on the news as we ate dinner every night, I can remember insisting to my primary school teacher that the topic of our first classroom debate should be ‘that conscription be abolished’. I was convinced my younger brothers would grow up to be drafted and die. I was ten. Then, as a twelve year old, I was the sole ‘It’s Time’ badge wearer at my ‘school for gels’ in 1972 when Gough swept to power and upon the Dismissal in 1975, swapped it for ‘Shame Fraser Shame’. My first overseas trip was in 1978 to the People’s Republic of China.
If you were transported to the world of Ditch in 2050, what are 3 things you would bring with you from 2019?
The small etymological dictionary that my grandfather gave me when I was eight. It still soothes me to open its yellow pages and skim the beauty of words and their origins, their connectedness. A folding hand fan to keep me from going spare in the humidity. And a crystal whisky glass – because if I’m going to drown in my sorrows while living in a ditch, I’m going to do it in style.
Fiona Press: So, Ditch was written by a young English woman ten years ago. What drew you, as a young Australian woman to this play right now?
Jasmin Simmons: First of all, the play is exceedingly relevant and remarkably fresh. Secondly, I was drawn to the team of inventive and assured women that I am fortunate enough to be working with.
How do the female characters deal within the hefty masculine world of Ditch?
Ditch is set in a post feminist world – the men of the play seem to be the most dominant. The women, however, are the great observers – and there is great power in that.
What’s the most useful skill you have brought to this production?
‘Post apocalyptic, climate change, fascist dystopia’ sounds a tad depressing. Where’s the hope?
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the hope lies within the devastation – similar to a bushfire – destruction provokes regrowth, new life.
And are there laughs?
Believe it or not, yes! As well as much breakfast making, animal skinning and whisky drinking.
Fiona Press and Jasmin Simmons can be seen in Ditch by Beth Steel.
Dates: 3 – 13 Apr, 2019
Venue: Limelight On Oxford