Archive: The Fiercest Women on Stage

Date posted: 3 Jun 2019Author: STC Production: The Torrents

From the courageous Joan of Arc in Saint Joan, to the savvy Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and the commanding Queens Elizabeth and Mary in Mary Stuart, tough, independent female characters are making theatrical history at STC.

All through the theatrical canon, there are brilliant, effervescent female roles to be found. Women that dominate the stage and put their intelligence, courage and strength in the spotlight.

One such woman is Jenny Milford, the bright, accomplished journalist at the centre of our upcoming production of The Torrents. Before Jenny takes to the stage, we look back at some of the fiercest women that came before her.  


MACBETH (1982, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2006, 2014)

Perhaps the most infamous fierce woman to ever take the stage is Lady Macbeth: the power-hungry, manipulative wife of the titular Macbeth. Arguably Shakespeare's most evil female character, Lady Macbeth pushes her husband to kill the reigning monarch, Duncan, to assume the Scottish throne, after three witches prophesy Macbeth's rise to power. She initially appears unfazed by the act, though later suffers night terrors and is racked with subconscious guilt.

Lady Macbeth is far more ambitious than Macbeth, but limited by the gender constraints of her time. Instead, she uses Macbeth as a conduit for her plan to seize power, masterfully manipulating her husband, questioning his manhood when he hesitates in killing Duncan, and pulling his strings.

Many of STC's most celebrated actors have played Lady Macbeth, from Robyn Nevin in 1982 to, most recently, Melita Jurisic in 2014.

Melita Jurisic in STC’s Macbeth, 2014. (Photo: Brett Boardman)


In 1984, Jackie Weaver stepped into the role of Billie Dawn, the (seemingly) vacuous blonde chorus girl at the heart of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday. When we first meet Billie, she is the mistress of the biggest junk dealer in the United States, Harry Brock. When Billie's uneducated gaffes embarrass Harry in front of potential business partners, he hires journalist Paul Varrall to be her teacher. As she learns, Billie comes to realise how corrupt Harry's business is, and works to foil his nefarious plans.

Billie is the quintessential poorly educated yet charming heroine. Throughout the play her frankness, wit and instincts guide her. As her intelligence grows, so does her strength. Billie becomes an icon of feminism, assertiveness and independence.

Gary Files and Jacki Weaver in STC’s Born Yesterday, 1984. (Photo: Brett Hilder)


The brilliant, headstrong Tracy Lord is the wealthy heiress at the centre of playwright Philip Barry's 1939 romantic comedy. The role was written for – and made famous by – Katharine Hepburn, who starred in the original Broadway production and subsequent film. For STC's production of the hit play, director Robyn Nevin cast Victoria Longley as her Tracy.

The play centres on Tracy's choice between the love of her fiancée George Kitterdge; ex-husband, C.K. Dexter; and a reporter, Macaulay Connor. Tracy is torn, but she never loses sight of her own needs and desires. She is equal parts staunch feminist and hopeless romantic – and a refreshing romantic lead.

Victoria Longley, Rhett Walton, and John Howard in STC’s The Philadelphia Story, 1986. (Photo: Branco Gaica)


Renowned for her beauty, her ferocity and her leadership, Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt and the subject of Shakespeare's 1607 play Antony and Cleopatra, which followed her relationship with the Roman general Mark Antony. The second of Shakespeare's fierce women to make our list, Cleopatra is a towering symbol of power and femininity in Western literature.

Sandy Gore was STC's first Cleopatra in 1992. When the production was restaged the following year by the Australian People's Theatre, in a co-production with STC's Education program, Anni Finisterer played the legendary ruler.

Fiona Press and Sandy Gore in STC’s Antony and Cleopatra, 1992, for STC’s Shakespier V.  (Photo: Robert McFarlane)

THE WOMEN OF TROY (1992, 2008)

Ancient Greek playwright Euripides' masterwork, The Women of Troy, begins right at the end of the Trojan War. The Greeks have snuck into Troy in the famed Trojan Horse, slaughtered all the men, and rounded up the women to be taken back to Greece. The play charts the fates of four women, as their agency is stripped and their lives hang in the balance: Helen, the Queen of Sparta whose abduction by Prince Paris of Troy instigated the War; Hecuba, the Queen of Troy; her daughter Cassandra; and Andromache, the widow of Hecuba's hero son, Hector.

In the face of exile, death and growing insanity, the women of Troy remain strong. Their pain over the death of their families is raw, and the women present a searing anti-war tableau.

In 1992, Judy McIntosh was Helen; Judi Farr, Hecuba; Kris Bidenko, Cassandra; and Victoria Longley, Andromache. When STC brought these cunning women back to the stage in 2008, it was a production of mythical proportion. Robyn Nevin shone as Hecuba, and Melita Jurisic gave a riveting performance as all three of the remaining women of Troy.

Robyn Nevin and in STC’s The Women of Troy, 2008. (Photo: Tracey Schramm)


Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's most beloved heroines. Persecuted by her ruthless uncle, Rosalind flees her home kingdom and is exiled in the Forest of Arden. There, she disguises herself as a shepherd and lives with her loyal cousin, Celia. She wants desperately to be reunited with her father and her lover Orlando, but does not let her sadness or her exile determine her fate. Instead, she uses her incredible intelligence to educate those around her about love, fairness and the power of thought.

Throughout the play it is Rosalind's devotion to her family and friends, her charm, her hardiness, and her independence that sets her apart from the other characters. She is the source of reason amidst mayhem.

In STC's only production of this timeless comedy, Anita Hegh starred as the fearless Rosalind.

Lucy Bell and Anita Hegh in STC’s As You Like It, 1996.  (Photo: Philip Le Masurier)


Mrs. Kitty Warrren is a classic George Bernard Shaw creation: an ex-sex-worker and current brothel proprietor, unashamed about her business and the way she makes a living.

Her daughter, Vivie, has just graduated from Cambridge with honours in Mathematics and a head full of ideas about what it means to be a modern woman. When Mrs. Warren's profession is revealed to Vivie she is, at first, horrified. But Mrs. Warren is strong and unapologetic: she takes this chance to educate Vivie about her struggles as a young woman in Victorian England, with few job prospects and a daughter who was solely dependent on her.

Mrs. Warren's Profession is another of Shaw's satirical social commentaries – a look at the motives behind sex work, and its place in a society riddled with unemployment and economic strife. In STC's 2013 production, the incomparable Helen Thomson led a stellar cast.

Helen Thomson in STC’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, 2013. (Photo: Brett Boardman)


In 1885, during Serbo-Bulgarian War, Raina Petkoff is a young woman devoted to her war-hero fiancée, Sergius, and clinging to her romantic conceptions of battle. One night, a Swiss soldier, Bluntschli, breaks into her bedroom and sweeps Raina off her feet, shocking her with his disdain for war and his genuine respect for her as a woman. 

Arms and the Man is another quintessential George Bernard Shaw play: an anti-war romantic comedy that examines the relationship between love and respect. Over the course of the play, Raina transforms from a devoted fiancée and war proponent to a woman who challenges social beliefs and values respect over idealised notions of love.

In 2015, Andrea Demetriades sparkled as the whimsical Raina.

Mitchell Butel and Andrea Demetriades in STC’s Arms and the Man, 2015. (Photo: Heidrun Lohr)


Nora Helmer is the anti-heroine of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. The play sparked a storm of controversy when it premiered in 1879 for its representation of female discontentment with the expected roles of wife and mother. Nora is married, the mother to three young children, and living an ostensibly perfect domestic life, but longs for freedom. She feels like a doll, a plaything passed from her father onto her husband, Torvald.

Her desire for self-fulfillment leads Nora to do something unheard of in the nineteenth century (and largely still today): she leaves her family so she can discover herself. Audiences were so outraged that Ibsen was instructed to write a more palatable ending where Nora stays for her children.

In 2002, Miranda Otto took on the role of the challenging, achingly real Nora, for our production of Ibsen's original, unedited play.

Miranda Otto in STC's A Doll's House, 2002. (Photo: Heidrun Lohr)


Eliza Doolittle is a street smart, uneducated Cockney girl who sells flowers to strangers on the street for a pittance. Desperate to elevate her social status, Eliza begins vocal lessons with Henry Higgens, a professor of phonetics.

As Eliza's speaking improves, she is increasingly torn: she struggles to completely blend into high society, but feels distant from her roots. Meanwhile, she and Higgens are falling quietly in love.

Eliza's true strength is that she is, essentially, unchanged throughout the play. She may annunciate more and fit in better with the upper class, but her sense of self-worth, her dignity and her ferocity were ingrained.

In 2012, Andrea Demetriades played the flower girl caught between worlds, for STC's production of Pygmalion.

Deborah Kennedy, Andrea Demetriades and Marco Chiappi in STC’s Pygmalion, 2012. (Photo: Brett Boardman)


Joan of Arc (later Saint Joan) lived a tragically short but incredible life. Born an illiterate farm girl, she became a leader in the French army at seventeen, was burned at the stake for heresy at nineteen, and canonised after death. Joan was a radical and an iconoclast, a fierce woman who never wavered in her religious and nationalist devotions.

In 1425, at age thirteen, she reportedly saw her first religious vision, in which three saints told her to fight the English attack on France, end the Hundred Years' War, and crown Charles VII. She devoted her life to this, undeterred by political, military and church leaders' claims that she was a heretic, a witch or simply mad.

Joan was captured in 1430 and sentenced to burn at the stake the following year. Though her life was cut short, she left an indelible mark on European history, and was canonised as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 1920

In 2018, STC brought Joan of Arc to the front and centre of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, adapting the play and adding new dialogue for Joan that gave insight into one of history's most known, yet unknowable, women.

Sarah Snook in STC's Saint Joan, 2018. (Photo: Brett Boardman)


Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, also known as Mary, Queen of Scots, were historic rivals: two women, both with a claim to the throne. After an uprising, the reigning Queen, Elizabeth, imprisoned Mary in England, where she remained for nineteen years. We meet the two queens in the final days of Mary’s life.  

Throughout the play, Elizabeth faces an impossible decision: whether or not to execute her prisoner, Mary, to maintain power. Both Mary and Elizabeth are assertive, driven women. They are persuasive, eloquent and dismissive of gender expectations. As rulers, both flaunt sixteenth century social norms, and refused to be subjugated to men.

As it was originally written by Friedrich Schiller, Mary Stuart gave the two queens very little agency. They were subject to the actions and demands of the men that surrounded them, pawns to be manipulated. But Kate Mulvany's adaptation gave Elizabeth and Mary authority and depth as cousins, childhood penpals, and lonely women who were only understood by each other.

This year, Mary and Elizabeth were brought alive on stage by Caroline Brazier and Helen Thomson, in a production that hit at the human heart of Mary Stuart.

Helen Thomson and Caroline Brazier in STC's Mary Stuart, 2019. (Photo: Brett Boardman)



When Koolgalla newspaper editor Rufus Torrent brings on J. G. Milford as his newest recruit, he is shocked to see a woman walk through the door. 

Jenny Milford is the sharp, young aspring journalist breaking down barriers for women in 1890s Australia, and the star of Oriel Gray's The Torrents.

She is brilliantly intelligent, determined to succeed, and undistracted by the two men – Rufus and his son Ben – vying for her attention. A fiercely feminist play, as relevant now as when it was first performed in 1955. 


The Torrents, 18 Jul — 24 Aug 2019, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Seeing the show? Pick up a souvenir play program from the Drama Theatre Box Office for $12, featuring in-depth articles, photographs and info about cast and creatives. You can pre-purchase program vouchers for $11 when booking your tickets. Season Ticket Holders can pre-purchase vouchers for $10 with their Season Ticket.

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