The on­go­ing suc­cess of Syd­ney’s Belvoir St Theatre seems un­sur­pris­ing now, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Robert Cousins pon­ders the jour­ney

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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