Elena Carapetis’ rainbow connections

Elena Carapetis had one request when State Theatre’s outgoing artistic director Geordie Brookman asked if she wanted to direct Peter Quilter’s homage to Judy Garland’s last days, End of the Rainbow

“The only way I could do it is if someone like, I don’t know, Helen Dallimore played Judy,” Carapetis says of the Australian star of stage and screen who will play Garland in End of the Rainbow. Carapetis, who is the State Theatre Company of SA’s current resident artist, studied at NIDA with Dallimore. She has nothing but praise for the inimitable actor. “When she was in third year she was in a production of Guys and Dolls where she played Miss Adelaide,” Carapetis remembers. “It remains one of the iconic student performances of NIDA’s history.”

With countless credits to her name, Dallimore was the original Glinda in the West End production of Wicked and won a Helpmann Award for her role as Paulette in Legally Blonde. But it’s her time as Glinda that Carapetis sees as Dallimore’s artistic “lineage” to The Wizard of Oz and therefore to Garland.

In speaking of the 1939 film, Carapetis’ love of Garland becomes infectious, despite the fact she was “aware of Dorothy before [being] aware of Garland”.

“Dorothy was real,” she says. “She was a very ordinary character, a girl from Kansas who lived with her aunt in this black and white world, and I was this kid in the country who dreamt of living this life in the theatre.”

Helen Dallimore at the Royalty Theatre (Photo: Sia Duff)
Helen Dallimore at the Royalty Theatre (Photo: Sia Duff)

It’s poetic then that End of the Rainbow will be Carapetis’ first main stage directing credit. Best known as an actor and writer, it’s a mighty professional challenge but Carapetis finds joy in the role through rehearsals. She says the cast have connected by reminiscing over “all the old films we’ve been watching that Judy’s been in”.

The Royalty Theatre, the iconic Adelaide venue built in the 1920s, may have seen better days, but it has become the perfect place to frame the vulnerability Garland displayed throughout her life and the work the cast have been studying.

The production’s designer, Ailsa Paterson, describes the Royalty as a “faded jewel of a theatre”, but she has been careful to incorporate the beauty of the gold proscenium arch and red velvet curtains, as well as “the key shapes of the architecture” into the set.

Paterson says that while “everything is very dusty and a little broken down” it has created interesting and exciting design challenges that she has relished taking on. Paterson has worked closely with lighting designer Mark Pennington to create a stage that contains elements including The Ritz Hotel and London’s Talk of the Town concert venue – where Dallimore and a seven-piece live band will perform 10 of Garland’s famous songs – all without access to a fly tower, wing space or an orchestra pit.

Dallimore in full Garland mode (Photo: James Hartley / State Theatre Company)
Dallimore in full Garland mode (Photo: James Hartley / State Theatre Company)

Carapetis speaks highly of Paterson’s work and the ways in which she has made the most out of the venue. “The set needs to move between being at the hotel, being at her concert, being at a BBC radio interview, being backstage,” she says. Despite the challenges, Carapetis sees the venue as a key feature. “If the production had been in a very clean , modern black-box theatre it wouldn’t have been so evocative.”

Paterson was thrilled to be able to continue her design vision through costuming, as well. The scope of the production and her role in it provides Paterson a chance to create a whole world for Garland on stage, both internally (through scenes exploring Garland’s deteriorating mental state) and externally. There are the iconic performance outfits, which were specifically designed, as well as a range of day wear that was drawn from State Theatre’s wardrobe or sourced locally.

Paterson says that working with Carapetis and Dallimore to go explore the psychology of Garland gave her “an opportunity to show the ‘undone’ Judy”.

“You see her in her full face of makeup and sequinned gown [in] concert performance mode, but then you see a version of her in a slip and her robe backstage, or back at the hotel shoe-less [and] makeup-less, where you get a sense of the true person behind the performer,” Paterson says.

Ailsa Paterson, Carapetis and Helen Dallimore at the Royalty Theatre (Photo: Sia Duff)
Ailsa Paterson, Carapetis and Helen Dallimore at the Royalty Theatre (Photo: Sia Duff)

In doing so, Paterson is able to create a narrative through costuming and design that she describes as “an arch to the story in the play” that shows that “facade and the glitz of what is expected of her and what she is meant to present to the world, [but also] once that is polished away, what is left behind is this kind of darkness”.

Both Carapetis and Paterson describe the breadth of End of the Rainbow – a play, a concert, an ode to Garland – as resting in safe hands with Dallimore. “She’s just such an extraordinary actor,” Carapetis says. “She does more than mimic … [she gets] underneath her skin properly and into the psychology.

“I have so much love and respect for [Garland],” Carapetis continues, “that I want this show to honour her, and to honour the idea of art being a place where we can honour and celebrate people as well.”

Paterson, too, is filled with admiration and excitement. “I just know [the audience are] going to be absolutely blown away by Helen’s interpretation of Judy, as I was from the very first read through. I got shivers. I could tell that this was going to be an extraordinary show.”

End of the Rainbow
Royalty Theatre
Friday, May 31 to Saturday, June 22
adelaidecabaretfestival.com.au

Header image:
Sia Duff

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.