The Indigenous writer, actor and director has taken home two major prizes at the 2017 New Premier’s Literary Awards.

Leah Purcell has won the top prize at this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for her play The Drover’s Wife, a radical retelling of Henry Lawson’s short story. It is the first time that a play has taken out the award.

Leah Purcell in The Drover’s Wife. Photograph © Brett Boardman

As well as winning the $10,000 Book of the Year award, Purcell also took home the $30,000 Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting. Earlier this year, she was awarded the $100,000 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Literature for the play – the nation’s richest literary award.

The Drover’s Wife – which Purcell wrote, directed and starred in – premiered at Belvoir St Theatre in September 2016. The production won four awards at the Sydney Theatre Awards, where it was named Best Mainstage Production for 2016. It also took out Best New Australian Work, Best Director of a Mainstage Production (Leticia Caceres) and Best Score or Sound Design of a Mainstage Production (The Sweats).

Purcell was read the story by her mother as a child and still has that same tattered book. In her stage adaptation – which Caceres called “a rough-edged stone cast straight into the heart of the colonisation story” – Purcell moved two Indigenous characters to the heart of the story. She herself played a frontierswoman who must protect her children and home while her husband is away droving. She also wove the story of her own great-grandfather into her dramatisation.

Describing it as “a declaration of war on Australia’s willful historical amnesia”, the NSW judges said that The Drover’s Wife “represents a seismic shift in postcolonial Australian playwriting. Brave, ruthless and utterly compelling from the first image, this epic tragedy is a passionate howl of pain and rage… a bold and exciting contribution to Australian playwriting – and, arguably, to Australia’s very identity.”

There are plans for the play to tour nationally and internationally. Purcell is also adapting the script for a film version, in which she will star, having been awarded funding from Screen Australia in February. She has also signed a book deal with Hachette to turn it into a novel and is apparently in discussions for TV series based on the film.

Other winners at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards include Heather Rose, who won the fiction award for The Museum of Modern Love, and Leanne Hall who took home the children’s award for Iris and Tiger. Thornton McCamish, won the nonfiction prize for Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead, while the prize for poetry went to Peter Boyle for Ghostspeaking.


THE NSW PREMIER’S LITERARY AWARDS WINNERS 2017

Book of the Year ($10,000)

The Drover’s Wife, Leah Purcell (Currency Press and Belvoir in association with Oombarra Productions)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($40,000)

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing ($5000 – sponsored by UTS)

Letter to Pessoa, Michelle Cahill (Giramondo Press)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction ($40,000)

Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead, Thornton McCamish (Black Inc.)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($30,000)

Ghostspeaking, Peter Boyle (Vagabond Press)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature ($30,000)

Iris and Tiger, Leanne Hall (Text Publishing)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature ($30,000)

One Thousand Hills, James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe (Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting ($30,000)

The Drover’s Wife, Leah Purcell (Currency Press and Belvoir in association with Oombarra Productions)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting ($30,000)

The Code, Series 2 Episode 4, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media)

Down Under, Abe Forsythe (Riot Film Pty Ltd)

Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000)

The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)

The NSW Premier’s Translation Prize ($30,000)

Royall Tyler

Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize ($5000)

Jan Owen

People’s Choice Award

Vancouver #3 in the series Wisdom Tree, Nick Earls (Inkerman & Blunt)