A BLOOD-CURDLING cackle echoes through the dressing rooms of the Opera House. For Cork actress George Hanover, taking on a role that has been the stuff of children’s nightmares for generations is a challenge to be relished: George is practising her evil laugh for her upcoming role as the green-hued Wicked Witch of the West in this year’s Opera House summer musical, the iconic The Wizard of Oz.
Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West in MGM’s 1939 classic movie saw her earn a place as the top-ranking female villain of all time, according to the American Film Institute. Hamilton’s Wicked Witch was hideous, ugly and just plain evil, imperilling Dorothy’s progress through the land of Oz at every turn.
But George, known for her screen roles in Gerry Stembridge’s feature film The Randomer, numerous short films and as Detective Inspector Audrey McCabe in Fair City, as well as her work on stage with Cork theatre company Broken Crow, says there’s more to the character than meets the eye.
“She’s a brilliant, iconic character to play,” George says, over lunch in a break from rehearsals.
“But I want to look after her: she’s mean and nasty, but she wasn’t born mean and nasty. A lot of stuff happened to her to make her that way. There are people in the world like that, so she’s a very human character.”
Playing a character that audiences love to hate is something George particularly enjoys. “It’s good to be bad,” she says, her face lighting up with a cheeky grin.
“In real life, I’m of a pretty sunny disposition, so it’s no difficulty for me to reach into that really dark, ugly, cruel place. It’s right there in front of me and I can just dip in and borrow and go ‘oh, I’ll have that, thanks very much.’ I love it, and it’s safe for me to do because it doesn’t reflect on my own life at all.”
Promotional shots of George in character as the witch show a dramatic transformation from her usual girl-next-door good looks to a menacing character, ominous and austere and slightly more glamourous than the original movie version, thanks to a stunning costume by designer Joan Hickson and hair and make-up by Maeve Readman.
Trying on her full costume and make-up for the first time was a magical moment, George says: “It was truly one of those rare moments when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. As a storyteller, you’re constantly transforming yourself, but to see a visual transformation as well is quite something. It’s a heightened sense of dress-up, like being a child, where you get to really be something else.”
George grew up in a large family in Passage West where, she says, her earliest ambition was to be a singer.
“By around 15, I had decided that my voice wasn’t good enough and that if I wasn’t going to be as big as Michael Jackson there was no point, so I turned to acting,” she says.
She’s been a professional actress for the past 13 years, having taken the road less travelled and plunging straight in without choosing to study acting, instead cutting her teeth with Snatch comedy improv.
“13 years ago I decided I needed to go for it, and say, I am available for work, all the time. When I think about it, I feel it’s quite an achievement because it’s a tricky business,” she says. “I felt that I didn’t need a piece of paper to tell me I could tell a story. That may sound arrogant, but I just felt in my guts that I needed to do it my way.”
Now in her late thirties, her career is still on the rise and the role in The Wizard of Oz is a definite plus.
“It’s a slow-burn,” she says. “I can’t wait for the conversation where someone says ‘wow, you’re an overnight success,’ so I can say back, ‘it’s been the longest night of my life.’ But I firmly believe that things come in their own time and I took the long way around: It’s a slow rise, but a rise nonetheless and there’s more to come, and it’s exciting. The journey has made me the person I am.”
George has played her fair share of stage roles in experimental and avant garde productions with Broken Crow Theatre Company, with whom she’s been involved since the company’s founding; she’s been lauded for her work in Levin and Levin at the Everyman as well as productions at Cork Midsummer Festival.
She says she’s looking forward to being able to make some exciting announcements about the year that Broken Crow have in store for them, but in the meantime, she’s “battened down the hatches” to focus on her non-singing role in The Wizard of Oz.
Does she worry that her stint as a baddie in a musical will damage her work as a “serious” actress?
“No, not at all. It happens to be a musical, but it’s a very heartfelt story about friendship, coming of age and family. All that is there. The telling of this is very imaginative and it’s a very honest production.
“Of course, there are all these magical special effects: I get to fly and shoot fire out of my hands, which is great fun! But I’m essentially a storyteller and I think we could still tell this story even without any of that.”
It is, George says, a dream-team situation when it comes to cast, crew and production team. The Wizard of Oz stars Simone Collins as Dorothy, and is directed by Wayne Jordan, who also directed the critically acclaimed Irish dance show ProdiJIG last year.
“I can’t wait to get out on stage,” she says. “I think it’ll be an absolute rollercoaster for the audience.
“The story of the friendship between the Scarecrow, Tin Man, the Lion and Dorothy is told so sweetly and with such integrity that I doubt there’ll be a dry eye in the house. But there’ll be screams of laughter and terror too: I think it will be a quite intense and emotional experience for anybody, whether they’ve been in theatre much or not.”
Speaking about the production Cork Opera House CEO Eibhlín Gleeson said: “Cork Opera House has established itself as the biggest producer of musical theatre in the country. We are carrying on the tradition of producing some of the best loved musicals on our stage.
“I am proud to be making another large scale production right here in Cork with a fabulous team. We have gathered together some of the best stage actors and creatives in the country to create this epic show. Following the success of our show ProdiJIG, I’m delighted to be working with Wayne Jordan again. The Cork Opera House summer musical brings tens of thousands of people into the city, contributing to the life and soul of Cork. Our city will be bursting with life this summer, as musical theatre fans’ hearts soar with this magical show. Last year’s musical, Annie, sold out quickly so don’t miss your chance to see this.”
Director Wayne Jordan and Associate Director Davey Kelleher had this to say; “. The Wizard of Oz has been a cultural touchstone for generations. In approaching this much loved story, we’ve tried to stay authentic to the spirit of the original, while taking a fresh approach to its realisation. We hope audiences will be both surprised and delighted when they experience the show.”
The Wizard of Oz, the summer musical, is on in Cork Opera House from today, July 19 to August 26. Tickets:€20, €25, €30 and €35. Family pass, €80 to €120. Booking fees apply to telephone and online bookings. See www.corkoperahouse.ie