Playing it straight

05 October 2006

Actor Andrew McFarlane goes from portraying a flying doctor to a bumbling one in Alan Ayckbourn's black comedy, A Woman in Mind. He spoke with Katrina Fox.

After studying arts and law in Melbourne as a young adult and dabbling in horticulture, Andrew McFarlane realised he wanted to be an actor in literally a blinding flash. “It wasn't quite neon lights but it was like, ‘Stage door this way', he laughs. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

After graduating from NIDA in 1973, he appeared in the drama series Division 4, followed by The Sullivans and was among the original cast of The Flying Doctors, playing the part of Dr Tom Callaghan. His career, which spans more than 30 years, has seen him appear in a plethora of theatrical roles, as well as spots in staple Australian TV shows such as Halifax f.p, Blue Heelers, All Saints and The Alice.

Later this month he can be seen starring opposite Noni Hazelhurst in Sydney Theatre Company's production of A Woman in Mind. Hazelhurst plays Susan, a 40-something woman starved of affection from her vicar husband and distant son who knocks herself out one morning and awakens to a wonderful imaginary family before finally descending into insanity in Alan Ayckbourn's farcical play. “I've played two other Ayckbourn characters before, so I was familiar with the genre of how he writes,” McFarlane says. “I love playing comedy and I don't often get the opportunity to do it. But [the play] also deals with serious issues like relationships between men and women and the institution of marriage, and how people relate to each other on all sorts of levels – how we lie to each other, how we don't fulfil each other's ambitions and dreams and how we don't really get in touch with our feelings, or know how to communicate them. It's very English and Ayckbourn sends up institutions – there's a vicar, a doctor, a spinster-in-law and a desperate housewife, so you've got these archetypes but he looks at them with a completely different perspective.”

While many gay actors remain in the closet, McFarlane has been open about his sexuality and says the theatre world in particular has been accepting of this. “There's no issues about that whatsoever. Film and TV can be different because I think they are much more conscious about image, about selling something. That's where conflict might come in. They can also think ‘Wow what about that straight actor playing a gay character – what an incredible piece of acting work', but there must be innumerable gay and lesbian actors playing straight their whole career and they are not getting awards.”

Now based in Sydney, McFarlane doesn't frequent many gay bars anymore (“It all got a bit too intense and crowded”), but does enjoy a bit of camp fun and was spotted with his boyfriend at the recent show Eurobeat, based on the Eurovision Song Contest. “That was great – I thought it was hilarious,” he laughs. “I've always loved the real thing.”