Playing the love interest of a giant simian monarch has its own challenge but for Esther Hannaford the story is always king
King Kong is one of the great modern myths. And for all the thrilling terror and demolition it entails, the story is an unusually tender one, a touching portrait of loneliness in a big city.
"I always look for these kind of strong stories," says Esther Hannaford, star of the new Global Creatures King Kong musical. "Storytelling is the key. And this is such a great story to tell. It's such a great tragedy."
Hannaford plays the young Ann Darrow, kidnapped by the colossal Kong on his rampage through the streets of New York. But how do capture that essential tenderness – the complex beauty-and-the-beast chemistry of the relationship – when you're on stage with an enormous puppet, 40 times the size of a regular gorilla, manipulated by a small army of puppeteers?
Director Daniel Kramer's solution was to intensively workshop the scenes with Darrow and Kong with stand-in stunt actor Harley Durst playing Kong, whose presence helped Hannaford develop a more intimate and realistic understanding of her role.
"I don't know how I would have done it without him," she says of Durst. "We've done such crazy improvisations, scenes that are not even in the show, just really out there stuff to get the horror and the terror."
And even though the massive on-stage Kong is now fully operational, Durst is not far away.
"Harley is behind the stage with the voodoo puppeteers, operating the sound live. So we can still be collaborating and talking after scenes just like two actors."
The voodoo puppeteers are the ones controlling the animatronic facial features of the puppet, just another one of many unique aspects about this strange new musical.
"As big as it is, [this show] has a sort of creative, indie warehouse feel," says Hannaford. "It's so collaborative. People are making real contributions. It's completely different to any other musical I've worked on."
She is quick to assure us that people who love traditional musicals are still going to get what they want – big musical numbers, interesting characters, dancing – but it's also a show prepared to take some risks.
"In the structure they've bent the formula a bit. Whatever the story needs, the story gets. It doesn't pander."
You can see this in the casting. Along with co-star Chris Ryan, who plays Jack Driscoll, Hannaford is most famous for her work in Melbourne's independent theatre scene. Her singing voice, a unusual smoky mezzo with strong jazz-influences, reflects this independent spirit.
"When you do musical theatre, you think you should sound a certain way. For years I tried to do that. I would try and sing straight toned and with really clear annunciation."
But things, she says, are different on Kong.
"For a show on this scale to let me sing the way I sing, it's unheard of. I've never had that before. On other shows you're pretty much coached down to every little which-way that you sing. So it's not yours. But on this one, I feel like it is. That's all I ever wanted. As long as the story is being told and it's in your own voice."