STATE­MENTS ON STAGE

The seeds of our ma­ture and vi­brant theatre scene have been ger­mi­nat­ing since the 60s, writes Deb­o­rah Jones

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

THE Clancy Au­di­to­rium, Univer­sity of NSW, 1970: Ven­er­a­ble Bri­tish di­rec­tor Ty­rone Guthrie is in Syd­ney to di­rect Oedi­pus Rex for the Old Tote and I am on a Year 12 bus trip from New­cas­tle. In my mind’s eye I can still see the elab­o­rately stylised cos­tumes and masks of Yoshi Tosa’s de­sign but re­call noth­ing else other than be­ing rather bored. I was an in­ex­pe­ri­enced the­atre­goer but knew the Age of Aquar­ius had ar­rived.

A year ear­lier the rather more head­line­grab­bing Hair had come to Syd­ney, di­rected by Jim Shar­man, lo­cal lad and Na­tional In­sti­tute of Dra­matic Art grad­u­ate. Shar­man was al­ready a sea­soned di­rec­tor at 24, his CV in­clud­ing what his mem­oir Blood & Tin­sel de­scribes as an early suc­ces de scan­dale, Don Gio­vanni, for the Aus­tralian El­iz­a­bethan Opera Com­pany in 1967.

As Shar­man writes of the open­ing night in Blood & Tin­sel: “The per­for­mance ended in a rau­cous ca­coph­ony of cheers and boos. One critic, Kenneth Hince from The Aus­tralian news­pa­per, had al­ready fled to the toi­lets and flung his head un­der a tap. He emerged, wet and drip­ping, lapelled a pass­ing opera ex­ec­u­tive, and im­plored: ‘Tell me it’s a joke!’ ”

It couldn’t be judged one of The Aus­tralian’s more pre­scient calls but gives an ir­re­sistible flavour of the times. (Shar­man put the opera on a chess­board and in the back­ground dis­played black-and-white tabloid-style pho­tos of Gio­vanni’s crimes.) The pre­science was on the part of the opera com­pany, fore­run­ner to Opera Aus­tralia, that handed Shar­man the job, as in 1990 OA would give Baz Luhrmann a mod­est budget to come up with a new pro­duc­tion of La bo­heme. This was two years be­fore the film of Strictly Ball­room, and the rest is his­tory.

An oc­ca­sion when The Aus­tralian was on the right side of the ledger came in 1976 when then arts edi­tor Maria Pr­erauer helped judge a chore­o­graphic com­pe­ti­tion.

“Aus­tralia has most likely just dis­cov­ered a great chore­og­ra­pher of the fu­ture,” Pr­erauer wrote about the win­ner, Graeme Mur­phy. Af­ter cre­at­ing count­less works for Syd­ney Dance Com­pany Mur­phy would reimag­ine some of the great clas­sics for the Aus­tralian Bal­let, in­clud­ing his block­buster Swan Lake, which would be seen around Aus­tralia and in Tokyo, Paris, Lon­don and New York.

Ev­ery era has its claims to orig­i­nal­ity and breaks with the past but the events and in­flu­ences of the 1960s were par­tic­u­larly po­tent. It was a rollicking time of protest and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. In just a few years the cul­ture would shift from one that still too of­ten looked to the Old Coun­try for val­i­da­tion, to one in the hands of a gen­er­a­tion shaped by the sex­ual revo­lu­tion, the fight against cen­sor­ship, op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War and, de­spite that, the idea that be­ing Aus­tralian wasn’t too bad at all.

The first gen­er­a­tion of baby boomers had ar­rived at uni and started the Aus­tralian Per­form­ing Group in Mel­bourne and Nim­rod in Syd­ney, the new wave as it was known. Be­ing af­flu­ent (most of them), rea­son­ably well ed­u­cated and priv­i­leged, many of them were not only prom­i­nent in the 60s and 70s, but into the 80s and be­yond. Many are still with us.

It’s fun at The Aus­tralian, for in­stance, to glance over to the desk of the paper’s tele­vi­sion critic and see Graeme Blun­dell, aka Alvin Pur­ple and still an ac­tive ac­tor, but also the man who was ar­rested in 1969 in Mel­bourne af­ter a per­for­mance of Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed, which Blun­dell di­rected. In Bris­bane, ac­tor Nor­man Staines was taken into cus­tody for the same of­fence, of aiding and abet­ting ob­scene lan­guage in a pub­lic place. There was just one word that caused all the trou­ble, com­ing in the fi­nal two-word sen­tence of the play: the F-word.

Of such things are so­cial and cul­tural his­tory made.

At the same time or­gan­i­sa­tions and struc­tures were born or de­vel­oped into per­ma­nent fix­tures: state theatre com­pa­nies, bal­let and con­tem­po­rary dance com­pa­nies, opera com­pa­nies, the Aus­tralia Coun­cil, arts cen­tres, train­ing in­sti­tu­tions, the Syd­ney Opera House. This con­junc­tion of events, poli­cies and people — many of whom worked across art forms — pro­pelled much of what we recog­nise as to­day’s per­form­ing arts land­scape.

Such a cli­mate made it at­trac­tive for Robert Helpmann to re­turn to Aus­tralia as co-artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Bal­let (1965-76), af­ter hav­ing chore­ographed The Dis­play in 1964, a lit­tle more than a year af­ter the com­pany was founded. This was a bal­let set in Aus­tralia fea­tur­ing sex, vi­o­lence and footy. (It was re­vived in 2012 for the AB’s 50th an­niver­sary.) In late 1961 Patrick White’s The Ham Fu­neral (writ­ten in 1947) was given its pre­miere by the Univer­sity Theatre Guild in Ade­laide, the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val board hav­ing re­fused to in­clude it in the 1962 pro­gram. White’s time as a play­wright had come. The next three years would bring the mag­nif­i­cent trio of The Sea­son at Sarsaparilla, A Cheery Soul and Night on Bald Moun­tain.

As The Aus­tralian’s Syd­ney theatre critic John McCallum points out, not only did White’s knotty, ex­pres­sion­is­tic dra­maturgy have a strong in­flu­ence on younger play­wrights but “ev­ery gen­er­a­tion of di­rec­tors re­turns to him”. Bene­dict An­drews’s pro­duc­tion of The Sea­son at Sarsaparilla for Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany in 2007, for in­stance, was rev­e­la­tory. Night on Bald Moun­tain was re­vived only last month at Mel­bourne’s Malt­house, di­rected by 29-year-old Matthew Lut­ton.

The years whizz by. Some play­wrights fall out of fash­ion but oth­ers — take a bow, David Wil­liamson — be­come el­der states­men. Wil­liamson has been a one-man hit ma­chine for 45 years, start­ing with The Re­moval­ists and Don’s Party in 1971. I swear that when Emer­ald City opened in Syd­ney in 1987 I had never heard an au­di­ence laugh so ec­stat­i­cally and so fre­quently be­fore, nor have I since. It will be re­vived later this year at Syd­ney’s Grif­fin. Last month I went to his lat­est open­ing, Cruise Con­trol, at the En­sem­ble in Kir­ri­billi, one of eight Wil­liamson works to be seen in Syd­ney this year.

In mu­si­cal theatre the field is still dom­i­nated by im­ported shows, al­though all hail to Shar­man, whose di­rec­tion of Hair, Je­sus Christ Su­per­star and The Rocky Hor­ror Show proved you didn’t have to bring in an Amer­i­can di­rec­tor. More re­cently, how­ever, The Boy from Oz (1998) and The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2006) were hits here and had a life on Broad­way. Aus­tralia sends coals to New­cas­tle!

Opera be­came an un­likely and long-run­ning front-page story as the tu­mult and tur­moil of the Syd­ney Opera House project dragged on and on, but at least there was Joan Suther­land — Our Joan — per­form­ing reg­u­larly here to re­mind ev­ery­one why this mat­tered. She was sim­ply one of the very great­est of all time. And how many opera houses have their birth pangs im­mor­talised as an opera to be per­formed within its walls as in Alan John and Den­nis Watkins’s The Eighth Won­der (1995)?

In this pe­riod Abo­rig­i­nal arts as­serted them­selves as a rich, nec­es­sary ad­di­tion to the mix. Ban­garra Dance Theatre cel­e­brates its 25th birth­day this year and ap­peared in all the Syd­ney Olympics arts fes­ti­vals, the set of four that started with Rhoda Roberts’s Fes­ti­val of the Dream­ing in 1997. The open­ing night of Skin, Stephen Page’s work for the 2000 fes­ti­val, was un­for­get­table, al­though Ochres (1995) will al­ways have a spe­cial place in many hearts.

Women’s names come up in the ear­li­est years mostly as per­form­ers and oc­ca­sion­ally as play­wrights (now ne­glected), al­though Peggy van Praagh was found­ing di­rec­tor of the AB and Elke Nei­d­hardt a res­i­dent di­rec­tor at OA from 1977. More re­cently Robyn Nevin, a for­mi­da­ble ac­tress who was in the first NIDA in­take of 1959, has di­rected state theatre com­pa­nies. Af­ter her came Cate Blanchett as co-artis­tic di­rec­tor at STC, Mar­ion Potts run­ning Mel­bourne’s Malt­house, Kate Cherry at Black Swan State Theatre Com­pany, Lee Lewis at Grif­fin and Lindy Hume at OperaQ. Car­men Pavlovic is chief ex­ec­u­tive of Global Crea­tures, pro­ducer of King Kong and Strictly Ball­room.

And dis­cus­sion of this pe­riod would be in­com­plete with­out pay­ing trib­ute to Katharine Bris­bane, The Aus­tralian’s na­tional theatre critic from 1967 to 1972. In 1971, with her hus­band, the late Philip Parsons, Bris­bane founded Cur­rency Press, repos­i­tory of so much of our knowl­edge. The per­form­ing arts is an ephe­meral busi­ness, liv­ing in the mo­ment, in mem­ory and in res­o­nance. Via Cur­rency it also lives on in count­less playscripts and books.

I can un­earth mem­o­ries for 44 of these 50 years and it would be a sat­is­fy­ingly round 45 if only Mum had let me go to Hair in 1969. I re­gret be­ing so lack­ing in re­bel­lion. But there was plenty to come: Shar­man’s Je­sus Christ Su­per­star in 1972; Michael Gow’s Away in 1986; Gow’s pro­duc­tion of An­gels in Amer­ica, both parts, in 1993; Neil Arm­field’s Janacek se­ries for OA; Bar­rie Kosky’s The Lost Echo, Pop­paea and so much else; Elena Kats-Ch­ernin’s score for Meryl Tankard’s Aus­tralian Bal­let Wild Swans; Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois; Richard Roxburgh as Ham­let, Vanya and Es­tragon; Ewen Les­lie as Ham­let (twice); Ge­of­frey Rush in The Diary of a Mad­man and Exit the King; watch­ing the AB’s Lucinda Dunn for the en­tire of her ca­reer as she grew from tech­ni­cal prodigy in the corps de bal­let into the com­pany’s prima bal­le­rina.

Now for the next 50.

Clock­wise from far

left, Hair, The

Dis­play, Joan Suther­land, and Cate Blanchett in the STC’s The War of the Roses

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