COMING OF AGE
The ongoing success of Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre seems unsurprising now, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Robert Cousins ponders the journey
IN the winter of 1994, after a mercurial decade, Belvoir’s Company B teetered on the edge of oblivion. After three years of accumulated deficits, a vexed Australia Council refused to release the last tranche of Belvoir’s annual grant. Even while Neil Armfield was rehearsing Hamlet with a cast that included Jacqueline McKenzie, Richard Roxburgh and Geoffrey Rush, the rest of the staff agreed to go without pay to keep the theatre’s doors open.
Belvoir had its origins in the new wave of Australian theatre that came of age in the brief period squeezed between Bob Menzies’s retirement and Gough Whitlam’s sacking. In venues reclaimed from defunct inner-city factories — shirts, prams and tomato sauce — companies such as Cafe La Mama and the Australian Performance Group in Melbourne, and Jane St Theatre and Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, shrugged off the polite niceties that separated life from art in the establishment theatres. For the first time actors and audiences shared the same space, the same stories and the same accent.
Nimrod Theatre burst on to the scene in 1970. It was young, fun and hip. Its shows were brash, irreverent and overtly vernacular. It really was time. Within a few years it had outgrown its hole-in-the-wall Kings Cross premises and moved in to the much larger former salt and tomato sauce factory at Belvoir St in Surry Hills. It had ambition and for a while it also set the agenda, although by the end of the decade this new wave of theatre had broken. Jane St was long gone, at the Pram Factory the wheels had fallen off the Australian Performance Group, and Nimrod was locked in a losing battle for relevance with the new and more glamorous Sydney Theatre Company.
When Nimrod declared itself the Nimrod National Theatre Company it hadn’t overreached enough. Carrillo Gantner cheekily renamed his Melbourne company Playbox Cosmic Theatre and Nimrod unravelled amid the ridicule. By 1984, racked with debt, it sold up and moved to the larger Seymour Centre, hoping to trade itself out of trouble. Three years later, barely noticed, it died; a sad end to what was for a while Australia’s most vibrant theatre company.
In Surry Hills, ex-Nimrod employees Chris Westwood and Sue Hill had a hunch. Over a weekend, they rallied enough support to place a $50,000 deposit on the old Nimrod building, and during the next few months put together a syndicate of 600 shareholders — mostly actors, directors, writers, designers, arts administrators and technicians — who each paid $1000 to establish Belvoir St Theatre’s Company A. The early meetings were like a Tupperware party, Westwood said; ‘‘ everyone had to bring a friend who could give another grand’’. Patrick White liked to say that all the syndicate meetings ruined his back but that didn’t stop him buying eight shares.
To ensure the building was never lost as a home for theatre, a separate production company was established. For an extra 10 bucks, Syndicate members could join Company B. Where Company A owned the building, Company B’s purpose was to create ‘‘ contemporary, politically sharp, hardedged Australian theatre; to develop new forms of theatrical expression; work by and about Aboriginal Australians; work created by women; radical interpretations of the classics and work that is surprising, diverse and passionate’’. It was to be a voice for everybody, and everyone who worked there would receive the same wage: $256 a week.
With contracts exchanged, syndicate members gathered in their new theatre for two days of talk and concluded that ‘‘ the policy of the company should be revealed through programming rather than stated a priori’’. There would be no artistic director; rather, programming was the responsibility of the full board of directors of Company B, answerable to the members through annual election. Syndicate members were encouraged to submit programming proposals; many of them did. A small blue school exercise book held in the National Library in Canberra contains a neat handwritten list of all 1187 submissions considered by the directors in their first three years.
Company B was officially launched in February 1985. Amid the enthusiastic crowd munching on lamingtons, Noni Hazlehurst announced that Belvoir would be ‘‘ a place where something is always happening’’. Unfortunately, by the time they’d repainted the foyer, removed all gender-specific references from the Articles and hung out the new neon shingle, there was nothing left with which to make it happen.
So when it came to Belvoir’s first in-house production — Patrick White’s Signal Driver, directed by Armfield — an extra $25,000 was needed before rehearsals could begin. Armfield offered $500 investment units to any actor, director, writer, designer, arts administrator or technician who still had money left to give.
The share offer realised $15,000 and the show’s Martin Sharp-designed poster included the line: ‘‘ To Sydney with love from ESSO,’’ after the oil giant chipped in the remaining $10,000 to clear the way for opening night on May 25, 1985.
When the syndicate purchased the Belvoir St building, publicist Diana Manson had phoned Robyn Archer in London to tell her they’d just bought her the theatre as a present for her birthday. One of the earliest syndicate members, Archer was also elected to the first board. Between them, and not without tension, she and Armfield generated much of Belvoir’s early artistic direction. For now, she would generate some much-needed income. Having packed the Downstairs Theatre for Nimrod with Kold Komfort Kaffee, Archer dusted off her top hat for The 1985 Scandals to relaunch the same theatre for Belvoir. Once again, the punters crammed every corner of the tiny room. After two weeks, she made the short trip across the foyer and upstairs for an extra three-week run. But hits like this were rare, and misses all too frequent.
Belvoir’s dilemma was best illustrated by its 1987 production of On Parliament Hill, directed by Archer. Critic Harry Kippax moaned in the press that it was little more than a pious proclamation of gay pride. Staged during Mardi Gras, it was ‘‘ like being at a Revivalist meeting’’, Kippax said. Charged with preaching to the converted, Archer was quick to respond that even the converted need to be entertained. But she’d spoken too soon. Beyond the opening night back-slapping, another ‘‘ worthy’’ show failed to find a broader audience and tanked. Archer, sharp and blunt in equal measure, would later wonder why the company thought it could turn a dollar on ‘‘ a play full of poofs and talking corpses’’.
With no fixed policy except to avoid fixed policy, Armfield said programming often seemed to have ‘‘ fallen together accidentally’’. Consensus among board members on what was worth doing was infrequent. In the end it was all too easy to pass the buck. The solution was a rotating ‘‘ artistic counsel’’ appointed by the board to three-month terms. The role was never codified; the paid counsel was loosely responsible for artistic decisions on a day-to-day basis. Archer took up the first post and opened up a discussion on the merits of a subscription season as a way to curb the company’s hamfisted and ad-hoc planning — and then handed the problem over to the next artistic counsel.
Perhaps the board saw the danger of even more giddiness on this new artistic roundabout. At the first chance, it appointed Armfield as artistic counsel for 12 months. From here he orchestrated Belvoir’s first subscription season, 1988’s Radical Classics.
Classics of any kind had been rare at Company B: it couldn’t afford the larger casts, and moreover the classics were something Nimrod did. But with the memory of Nimrod rapidly ebbing, Armfield set about redefining his notion of the classics. The key was in the ‘‘ radical’’. These shows would be stripped back to reveal something essential, he said, ‘‘ that will make you sit up in amazement at the modernity of the work’’. Here, finally, was a coherent idea to sell.
For the first time, Company B could truly own its program. There was a growing confidence, and to prove the point, Armfield coaxed John Bell back to his former Nimrod stage for the first of his Radical Classics, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. That Bell might have been exorcising a few ghosts of his own would not have been lost on some.
Belvoir’s confidence was also reflected in its willingness to take part in the big conversations, with the feverish great hurrahs of 1988 marking 200 years since the arrival of the ships Sirius and Supply through the Heads into the Gadigal people’s Warrane (Sydney Cove), and the beginning of Sydney’s obsession with its harbour. Belvoir had always had its back to the harbour. If it faced anywhere, it faced south towards Redfern — home to many of the current Gadigal.
Capricornia, Xavier Herbert’s epic novel of an uneasy history between black and white Australia, was part of Belvoir’s response to the Bicentenary. Adapted by Louis Nowra and directed by Kingston Anderson, this story about the tragic consequences of buried lies exposed some of the old wounds that had been opened by the surrounding triumphalism as the replica boats rounded the heads of Sydney Harbour, this time with Coca-Cola flags waving boldly from their masts.
The next two shows, Drums of Thunder and Les Enfants du Paradis, struggled to match the promise of the previous two but the final play, Stephen Sewell’s Hate, directed by Armfield, hit the mark. Increasingly, the company would be defined by Armfield’s work, and his work by the generous embrace of that corner stage. In this corner that Armfield had grown to understand in his own particular way, the architecture of the stage itself, ‘‘ very intimate, and yet somehow epic as well’’, was essential to his understanding of play and of theatre. On a playground where there is nowhere to hide, where the gap between actor and audience barely exists, the act of theatre is laid bare: trust and honesty and fearlessness are essential. It was these qualities that would give clarity to his work.
Armfield’s wildly successful production of A Diary of a Madman with Rush was the highlight of 1989. Despite this, the company was in desperate financial straits when it washed up, in the new year, on Brian Thomson’s sand-strewn set for Armfield’s production of The Tempest. Not since Capricornia had Belvoir fielded a cast this size. Rather than the numbers though, the bravery of this production lay in its simplicity. All it needed was a little rough magic from Bell’s Prospero to stir up a storm in an old tin drum. The risk paid off. The Tempest played to chock-full houses and, together with Archer’s Cafe Fledermaus, reversed the company’s bottom line. Just as importantly, its large ensemble cast presented Armfield with a model for the company’s future.
The hard-won surplus was subject to the usual slippage. Within three years the deficit was back to where it had been, but then Barrie Kosky’s The Exile Trilogy — a wild mix of Yiddish theatre and grotesque vaudeville — saw out 1993. It was everything the original syndicate had hoped for in Belvoir and it momentarily arrested the slide. Then Dead Heart fell short of its budget, Blue Murder failed, finances plummeted, and the Australia Council stepped in. Belvoir’s last hope was Hamlet. Perversely, the Australia Council had funded the whole of that season with the express exception of Hamlet on the grounds it did not ‘‘ as clearly reflect Performing Arts Board priorities’’. Now a grim, scribbled assessment in the files noted that Hamlet was likely the ‘‘ best asset’’ the company had, if only it could survive long enough to see it realised.
With little alternative, the Australia Council backed down and released the outstanding money, the staff were paid and, just after 8pm on June 23, Rush stepped forward on to the bare concrete floor of the Belvoir stage to introduce the full company of Hamlet: Give order that these bodies be placed to
view, And let me speak to th’yet unknowing
world How these things came about . . .
Hamlet was a hit, and it proved to be a watershed for the company and Armfield. A month later, when the board formalised the position of a single artistic director, the minutes noted that Armfield was ‘‘ happy and ready to take on the position’’. Neil Armfield’s Company B had arrived. Robert Cousins is a stage and screen set designer, and the editor of 25 Belvoir Street, published by Belvoir St Theatre.
Richard Roxburgh and Geoffrey Rush in Company B’s 1995 production of Hamlet