Esther Stephens brings NZ suffragette Kate Sheppard back in a bloody-minded punk rock opera, writes Dionne Christian.

"It's all killer and no filler."

Esther Stephens sits in the boardroom at Auckland Theatre Company looking every inch the female rock icon -- black leather jacket, black jeans and hair artfully tousled -- as she talks about the latest show she's in.

Having recently finished filming TV3's Westside, where she plays conniving Ngaire Munroe, Stephens returns to theatre to play the lead in Auckland Theatre Company's That Bloody Woman -- but looks can be deceiving.

The star of the show isn't a rock singer; instead it's New Zealand's most famous suffragette, Kate Sheppard, who led the campaign that resulted in NZ becoming, in 1893, the first country to give women the vote.


But, as That Bloody Woman director Kip Chapman says, this story isn't a Wikipedia entry brought to the stage. It's a punk rock opera and whoever took the starring role had to be able to play bloody-minded and have the "vocal chops" to belt out rock songs, funk numbers and a ballad or two.

Stephens is well-known to TV viewers for Go Girls, Underbelly, When We Go to War and, of course, Westside, but started out on stage and has clocked up an impressive range of theatre credits in the last decade or so.

She also sings, headlining the neo-soul group Esther Stephens & The Means, who released their debut album last year then took off on a nationwide tour.

Luke Di Somma, who co-wrote That Bloody Woman with Gregory Cooper, reckons he knew Stephens was the right woman to play Sheppard within a minute of seeing her on stage during that national tour.

"She just walked on to the stage and said, 'I'm Esther Stephens and we're The Means', and I knew she had the right attitude," he says. "I'm a 'go-on-your-gut-feeling kind' of guy and I knew right from the get-go that Esther Stephens is one of the few people in New Zealand who could play the part."

Flattered, Stephens says she was immediately interested in That Bloody Woman, because she liked that the concept was fresh and the idea of playing an iconic New Zealand woman was exciting.

"It's always good to do work and be part of something that hasn't been done before."

The show debuted at the Christchurch Arts Festival last year, with Stephens playing Sheppard and Geoffrey Dolan as her nemesis, King Dick Seddon.

She says the 90-minute performance is demanding.

"It's an enormous show, physical and vocally demanding and emotional, but those are absolutely its greatest strengths," she says. "The intensity of the show matches what was at stake and it's perfect for modern audiences with short attention spans. No one wants to listen to a ballad that's longer than 3.5 minutes."

A songwriter herself, Stephens liked that Di Somma was open to collaborating on some of the music and Di Somma appreciated her input, too. They worked together in rehearsal lunchbreaks, tapping out rhythms and thrashing out lyrics.

He says it's had the added bonus of making it sound like the Kate Sheppard of That Bloody Woman wrote the songs.

"Theatre is the most collaborative art form so why would I not write with Esther for Esther? Of course, I want her to feel as comfortable as possible singing the songs."

Stephens describes it as the kind of relationship actors and singers dream about, but who writes a rock opera about a 19th century feminist in the first place?

Di Somma, Chapman and Stephens say when you think about it, it makes almost perfect sense. In That Bloody Woman, Sheppard -- she of the well-coiffured hair, high collar and regal countenance on our $10 note -- returns 82 years after her death to see what progress NZ women have made.

(A quick look at some statistics and you could reasonably conclude Sheppard spun herself right out of her grave: NZ women earn, on average, 11.8 per cent less than men and are over-represented in a narrow band of occupations that pay less and offer less job security; women comprise just 33.9 per cent of our politicians in Parliament -- even though NZ women got the vote in 1893 -- and one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence from a partner with one in five likely to experience sexual assault as an adult.)

Given what Sheppard fought for and the era she lived in, Chapman reckons she was an archetypical rebel who wasn't afraid of ruffling feathers or railing against social convention.

So, he says it's understandable how our most famous suffragist can be plucked out of the history books and transformed to an in-your-face feminist firebrand raising hell.

"We're in the feeling business," says Chapman.

"It's not our job to tell, on stage, a Wikipedia entry about Kate Sheppard's fight for equality; it's our job to make the audience feel like they're watching a show which gives an insight into what things were like and the spirit needed to make change happen."

Di Somma has credits under his belt as a conductor, musician, composer and musical director, not to mention a Fulbright Scholar and a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

In New York, he saw a number of productions that fuelled a belief musical theatre can be about history and politics, rather than heartbreak -- insightful and intelligent with a more alternative musical feel and sound than we may be used to.

A musical about Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the US, had Di Somma thinking about iconic New Zealanders and Sheppard came immediately to mind.

"Sheppard was someone who sang to me," he says.

"The desire, the drive, the sense of injustice and the oppression: All the best musicals are about underdogs.

"It was always going to be a rock musical; it was always Kate Sheppard as a singing freedom fighter."

Chapman likes the theatricality of the piece, saying that's what draws him to theatre in the first place. Last year, he directed the stage comedy Hudson & Halls Live!; before that he made Apollo 13: Mission Control and won an Arts Foundation New Generation Award in 2013 for his efforts.

When Di Somma asked him to direct, Chapman only had to check his diary to confirm his availability.

"The idea of a rock musical in the Spielgeltent ticked all my boxes before I'd even heard the concept," he says, "but I'm not into making theatre that no one wants to see.

"I always ask myself, 'would my mum come to see this?', and try to make something she'd want to see but, at the same time, would -- gently -- take her out of her comfort zone.

"We're in the business of message but I like it with a healthy dose of entertainment on the side."

That Bloody Woman is a co-production between Auckland Theatre Company and The Court Theatre and the production travels directly to Christchurch following its season in Auckland for performances at The Court Theatre season, July 2 - 30.

Need to know


That Bloody Woman

Where and when:

SkyCity Theatre, June 9-26

That Bloody Woman also stars Amy Straker, Phoebe Hurt, Cameron Douglas and Kyle Chuen.