In Home, I’m Darling, Jane Turner plays Sylvia, mother to the protagonist Judy. Judy has retreated from modern life to become a stay-at-home housewife in a fantasy facsimile of the 1950s. Second-wave feminist Sylvia is aghast. She ‘lived through what her daughter is trying to emulate,’ Turner says, ‘and she knows the reality of the other side, the dark underbelly of that shimmery, shiny fantasy.’
The Kath & Kim star is no stranger to playing a mother exasperated by her adult daughter. As Kath Day-Knight, her conflicts with her on-screen daughter, Kim Craig, were played for laughs. With Sylvia, Turner has taken on a more dramatic role, although still within a domestic comedy setting. Home, I’m Darling is ‘a really fun show,’ Turner says, ‘but with so many things to pull apart. It’s very relatable with regards to our times – how civilised we are, how we live, women’s roles, men’s roles, freedom and responsibility, morality, economics. I think it’s fascinating.’
The character is quite personal for Turner: her own mother, who passed away a few years ago, provided a role model. ‘My mother was very much Sylvia – she was in Women’s Electoral Lobby in the 70s, she was very intelligent and she was raising six kids but she always worked full time. She was a go-getter, she was a feminist. And she was my heart and soul for this character.’ Turner’s mother was also very practical, especially with money. ‘She was hard-working and knew that if she didn’t earn her own money she could be in a bad way. It came very much from the place that Sylvia talks about, of economic freedom and economic independence.’
Turner’s sister has also informed her approach to playing Sylvia. It is revealed during the play that Sylvia raised her daughter in a commune, and Turner’s sister – an environmentalist who was active in the fight to prevent the Franklin River Dam – lived in a commune. ‘An intentional community, they called it. I loved it when I was young, she was my hero.’
A sense of nostalgia
Where Turner doesn’t relate to her character is around the idea of nostalgia. She views Sylvia as not having a sense of the nostalgic, whereas she herself loves it. ‘I love nostalgia, I love history; I think history teaches us the best lessons,’ she says. In this respect, she relates to and empathises more closely with Judy.
‘Judy says so many very true, pertinent things [about the 1950s] – there was a sense of community, there was a sense of caring about other people that we might be lacking now. And she acknowledges that it’s not perfect, that the flip side is that there was also intolerance.’
Like Judy, Turner suspects her own sense of nostalgia ‘comes from a dissatisfaction with the aesthetic of the modern world, or the chaos and the freedom of the modern world. I mean, the freedom is great but what it brings is almost too much responsibility for my tiny pea brain! The possibilities can be deafening. So that’s why the play resonates with me.’
‘It’s just reality, I just try to be as real as I can. Even with Kath – I think Kath’s very real. I know people like that. Most people do.’
While taking on this more dramatic role for Home, I'm Darling, Turner is known as a comedian. She made her name in television comedy shows of the 80s and 90s, including The D-Generation, Fast Forward and Full Frontal, as well as Big Girl’s Blouse with Gina Riley and Magda Szubanski, where their iconic Kath & Kim characters first came to life. But she’s no stranger to playing more serious roles, having also appeared in drama series such as Prisoner. Her approach is the same either way: ‘it’s just reality, I just try to be as real as I can,’ she says. ‘Even with Kath – I think Kath’s very real. I know people like that. Most people do.’
Reality has been Turner’s world for the past few years. The last theatre job she had in Australia was MTC's production of Jumpy in 2015, but since then she’s been ‘chilling out’ overseas, exploring other things. She ‘sort of lost interest in the whole game for a bit,’ she admits. ‘I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was a mother and I was tired. So once the last child left school I just wanted to give myself a break. But now, doing this play is nice, so I’m starting to think “ohh it’s quite a good job, actually”.’
The rest is history...
Her temporary disillusionment isn’t surprising. Acting is a tough business. ‘Some people regard it as a bit of a hobby,’ she says. ‘They think it’s just something you do in your spare time. And I think some people don’t realise how hard it is, and how it’s all consuming. It’s also very tough to be judged. Imagine if they had reviews of bankers in newspapers!’
She recalls that the first reviews of Kath & Kim were terrible – ‘just two women shouting at each other’, she jokes, emulating the reviewers. It must have been a nerve-wracking time, given that she and the team had pushed ahead with the show despite the ABC pulling the plug before they began filming. ‘But after about a week, people were loving it. And then the ratings just went through the roof, and the rest is history.’
Recently, Turner was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the performing arts as a writer, actor and comedian in appreciation of that history. The recognition ‘makes her feel a bit grown up’ but mainly she is happy about it because she knows it would have made her mother proud.
Jane Turner is currently appearing in Home, I’m Darling at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Published on 14 February 2020