First published on 5 May 2011. Updated on 4 Aug 2011.
We caught up with Australia’s own Helpmann Award-winning Mary Poppins, Verity Hunt-Ballard.
Verity, how helpful was it to you in playing this role that you had previous nannying experience?
As an actor all of your life experience contributes to a role you portray! I’ve always been a lover of children, and that experience certainly taught me an incredible lesson in patience when you are looking after children, and taught me about the fragility and the influence you can have on children. It’s an incredible privilege to be welcomed in to somebody else’s home like that.
So basically you’re method acting.
[Laughs] I approach all my roles in some sort of truthful way. I always take a part of myself and try and express it on stage. The audience really shouldn’t tell the difference between the character and the actor.
You were all advised to steer clear of the movie and other productions to discover your own interpretation, but how conscious were you of Julie Andrews’s portrayal?
I certainly wanted to pay huge respect to Julie Andrews. I am a huge fan and also I think the iconic portrayal of the role is embedded in people’s minds around the world. To play with the character too much and give a completely different take wouldn’t have worked for me anyway. So I just tried to combine elements of her wonderful English, feminine wit and incorporate my own take on it.
There’s something particularly special about the Australian take compared to the Broadway and West end productions, isn’t there?
It’s lovely when people say that – and a lot of people have said that. As Cameron Mackintosh said, only in Australia would he be able to assemble the cast where every member of the cast is the best person for the job. Now, that’s because we don’t have as much work over here and sometimes people are not in work, but also it’s because Australians have a good grasp on English wit. Americans have a unique humour of their own – there’s a different psyche over there – and sometimes the English stuff doesn’t work.
I haven’t seen the show anywhere else and the producers were adamant that we didn’t because they really wanted us to have our own take on the show. I really appreciated that. Especially in musical theatre, you can easily get into mimicry if the roles are being played at different times by different people.
Matt and I were given a lot of flexibility in the rehearsal room to really play around and I think the trust goes both ways. I’m a singer and dancer but predominantly I come from an acting and storytelling background and that’s first and foremost for me. Everyone could see that I wantred to contribute to the rehearsal process – rather than just being a puppet. It’s a lovely honour when you’re working in a creative situation to be able to collaborate that way. That produces the best work.
With so much happening in every performance, have there been any slip-ups? Any Spider-Man-style nightmares? I did have a little trip in the chimney! But apart from that it’s been an incredibly smooth ride, especially considering we’re working with children on stage – I thought there would be many more hiccups, but the kids are just amazing. They age between ten and thirteen and they’re so amazing and mature and gifted. Touch wood! It’s been an incredible Melbourne season.
Do you have a favourite song?
I do enjoy singing ‘Feed the Birds’ with Debra Byrne every night – that’s really special for me. But all of them, ‘Supercal’ and ‘Step in Time’ are incredible. It’s really beautiful, beautiful music. It’s such an honour to be playing with that orchestra every night.
Have you taken on any of the personality of Mary Poppins? You must have become very mindful of your posture.
Well I have to look after my body anyway because of the dancing! Yes, I think I have taken on a little bit of that. Sometimes I notice when I’m speaking I might break in to quite a well-to-do accent and it’s just because I’m speaking like her so many hours of so many days. There are always little elements that go both ways: a bit of Mary Poppins that I take on and a little bit of Verity in my performance.