In Zahra Newman we have one of the great stage prospects of today. She cuts a striking figure: intelligent, expressive eyes, constantly appraising; a broad gift for impersonation; an aura of unshakeable confidence; and a voice that vaults from the stage to the back rows.
She exudes ambition in the best way possible: accomplishment. As Varya, she could have swallowed Ranevskaya whole. As humble Catesby, it seemed she grew in crippled Richard's footsteps.
Her clarity of technique wounds inferior theatre; it exposes vague direction and mediocre writing. Her native talent can't help but put itself in relief. Is she the next Pamela Rabe? The next Robyn Nevin? Or something more terrifying, the first Zahra Newman?
She has a reputation for being difficult. Or at least we are thrilled by rumour that she might be difficult. If you look hard enough you can see the beginnings of a mythology. We would prefer the mythology. She is passionate first for the work, only then, like an afterthought, for the applause. We are not used to integrity being so near to glamour.
"The thing that I love most about acting is the rehearsal period, and no-one really sees that," she says, without apology. "It is the working, digging into something, excavating and exploring with other people."
She was born 27 years ago in Jamaica. When she was 14 she followed her mother to Brisbane. She studied drama in Toowoomba. It's an improbable conjunction. She transferred to Melbourne's VCA in 2006, another unlikely choice for someone with the sort of charisma more often associated with the starriest of NIDA graduates. Didn't she steal scene after scene from under the nose of Toby Schmitz, that jealous accumulator of dreamy looks, when the two were paired for Belvoir's Private Lives?
She has flourished. Almost immediately she caught the eye of Simon Phillips at the Melbourne Theatre Company. In 2011 she amazed audiences with her one-woman turn in Random, London-based playwright Debbie Tucker Green's portrait of a British-Jamaican family in crises.
She is the brightest sort of satellite, but vibratile; she oscillates between conservative main-stage fare and the experimental fringe, beloved both by naval-gazing VCA graduates and staid subscribers. So, from historicist candy of Katori Hall's The Mountain Top in December to Simon Stone's latest deconstructive thrust in March.
The show is The Government Inspector, a proto-absurdist riff on mistaken identity, corruption and provincial vanity by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. It's a 19th-century classic about an unexceptional bureaucrat mistaken for an all-powerful government inspector by the incompetent officials of a dreary backwater. It's a plot that has been recycled many times since, most famously in the Fawlty Towers episode about the health inspector and the pet rat. But we are promised a thorough evisceration:
"Process is important in Simon's work," says Newman, "from my experience working with him. And this one is going to be much further removed from the skeleton than other adaptations that he has done."
Process is important in Newman's work, too. Now she is working with an ensemble, reconfiguring the play's themes and motifs, building new characters from the dismantled parts of the old. Does she know who she'll be playing? She laughs:
"That is a funny question. I would love to tell you, but up until the last development we were changing characters around. At this stage I'm a performer."
It's all work for Newman – whether devising or interpreting. And working is what matters. She is still young. Such absorption, like the perfect equanimity of a mirror, might amount to anything it wanted, if only it wanted. So we wonder at what leading roles she might transform in the future, even as we watch her wrestle with the uncertain equality of the collective, primus inter pares. But we do watch her.
The Government Inspector is a co-production with Sydney's Belvoir Theatre and replaces The Philadelphia Story in the Malthouse 2014 season.