I lived in Canberra in the mid-1980s and it was a magical time for amateur – or perhaps I should call it non-professional – theatre and music. Each year the Arts Faculty at ANU put on a Shakespeare play. I don’t know what they were like as lecturers but there were actors there who could not only act with the best of them but had remarkably deep, powerful, penetrating theatrical voices – like Richard Burton. If anyone can remember the name of the English (language not nationality) academic who (I think) lived at Bruce Hall and was often in the lead – please mention it in comments.
Early on in the 80s (if my memory isn’t getting the time wrong) the Doug Anthony All Stars would busk in the Monaro Mall. There were several good theatre groups which received some funding but also filled out their acting personnel with amateurs many of whom were good.
And Paul Thom – a lecturer in Philosophy at ANU and a remarkable fellow – put on a full scale Handel oratorio each year (a little before they became the latest thing). Usually there were four professional singers filling out the solo roles with amateur choirs singing choruses and kids from Boys Grammar doing some male alto singing.
None of these productions were flawless as you would expect. But they were marvellous nevertheless. Full of energy and enthusiasm, and directed by people with great passion and insight into what they were doing. One could forgive the odd person who couldn’t act to save themselves, in the circumstances in a way I can’t forgive it in professional performances. But almost invariably the important parts were not just well played. They were played much better than one would generally expect them to be played by professionals. By people with great abilities who were doing it for the love of it. (There’s a analogy with open source software here – the best quality around and it’s produced for love not money. But I won’t labour the point).
I remember seeing Tartuffe produced in Melbourne by the Anthill Theatre company complete with a fancy set and vivid costumes. (I recall – correctly or otherwise – costumes made of brightly coloured rubber, like multicoloured raincoats.) Anyway the production had nothing obviously wrong with it and got great reviews (which spent plenty of time talking about the costumes and the set) but I was bored to bits. I figured Moliere wasn’t for me.
Then I saw the Arts’ Faculty’s performance of it in Canberra a couple of months’ later. Bill Guinane’s philosophy lectures had always strongly suggested he’d rather be somewhere else. His performance of Tartuffe showed you where it was. He was marvellous as the mischievous, misanthropic Tarfuffe and brought out the comedy with passion – the passion of a true misanthrope perhaps. Bill Guinane did lots of acting after that performance and he was always marvellous.
Another year Manning Clark did a cameo as father time in The Winter’s Tale played in the open air in the strange angular buildings by the side of the High Court with his son Axel being comical in a leading role. Both Clark and his son have since died. The Dougies moved onward and upward. Paul Thom got jack of all the work he had to put in. And I don’t recall the Arts Faculty putting on much after the late 1980s. An era came to an end.
So I was grateful to see some of the energy I remember from Canberra in the 1980s returning to Melbourne with a production of Chekov’s Ivanov which has been produced by a cast of nearly twenty professional actors all working for nothing. They do a great job. There are some reviews you can click-through to here, here and here. The night I went (Friday) Helen Morse was absent and had her place taken by someone who read the part script in hand. It reminded me of Canberra. She did a great job in that remarkable way that actors can.
Go and see it if you can.