Theatre

Mary Lord reviews 'Australian Melodrama' by Eric Irvin

Mary Lord
Friday, 27 November 2020

It seems that going to the theatre has always been a popular activity with Australians. Popular theatre during the period covered by this book (1834–1914) staged a remarkable variety of Australian plays: operettas, melodramas, burlesques, sensation plays, and extravaganzas. On Our Selection, the first play to be called ‘Australian through and through’, opened to an audience of more than a thousand and achieved tremendous popularity.

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Theatregoers with long memories may well hug to themselves the ‘golden years’ of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s tenancy of the Russell Street Theatre in the 1960s, a time in which plays as varied as Hochhuth’s The Representative, Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s infallible matinee version of Henry James’s The Heiress, and many others jostled for attention. It was the time when an actor called Clive Winmill stepped on stage in the swinging London comedy The Knack and, instead of saying his lines, treated the audience to a passionate anti-Vietnam involvement speech. It was a time when the provocative new and the venerated classic made equal claims on a theatrical ensemble which achieved real importance in Melbourne’s cultural life.

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There seems to be an ever-growing – I almost wrote market, but think I mean obsession – these days for the family history, the personal memoir, the parading of how I spent my childhood/adolescence/ protest years/personal and economic growth decades, before-finally-contributing-to-the-joy-of-past-and-future-generations-by-listing-my-achievements. Many of these are self-published. Kristin Williamson’s biography of her playwright husband is not, but perhaps should have been.

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When Prince Hamlet cried ‘The play’s the thing’, he was about to use a performance of The Mousetrap to demonstrate a point central to his purpose: he intended to ‘catch the conscience of the king’. Nearly 400 years later, British playwright David Hare endorsed and expanded Hamlet’s utilitarian approach, writing: ‘Indeed, if you want to understand the social history of Britain since the war, then your time will be better spent studying the plays of the period … than by looking at any comparable documentary source.’

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The twelve-month period which began in February 1982 saw an unprecedented growth of interest in Aboriginal drama in English, both within Australia and overseas. In that month, Jack Davis’s second play, The Dreamers, made its début in the annual Festival of Perth and was generally well received by the critics. Five months later, Robert Merritt’s 1975 play The Cake Man was revived briefly in Sydney, in preparation for its two-week season as an Australian representative at the World Theatre Festival in Denver, Colorado. So popular was it that tickets for the entire season were sold out in advance of the first performance, thereby breaking all box-office records for the festival.

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What is the musical’s appeal? Performing arts venues in Australia’s capital cities stage them year after year; a lucrative box office seems to be virtually guaranteed. The feel-good mix of song, melodrama, and vibrant dance – not forgetting the bonus of a happy ending – can lift the spirits and entertain the entire family. Recently, Chicago (Melbourne, Brisbane), West Side Story, and Billy Elliot (Adelaide) secured packed houses.

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Nowadays every second young person seems to want to be a stand-up comic, an occupation that perfectly represents the ‘gig’ economy in its precariousness and occasional nature. Anne Pender gives us mini-biographies of seven Australians who succeeded, often spectacularly, in the risky business of being a comic long ...

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People who were university students at a particular time often like to regard those years as exceptional, a perspective which, embellished by nostalgia, memoirs, and media hype, can take on mythic proportions. A case in point is the concurrence of people and talent that led to a high point in student theatre ...

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When Alison Croggon’s theatre review blog Theatre Notes closed in late 2012 after eight years in existence, its demise was met with a response akin to grief. The first blog of its kind in Australia, and one of the most enduring anywhere, TN became essential reading for anyone interested in Australian performance ...

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What exactly is a National Theatre for? What is its purpose? What form should it take? National theatres come in many configurations. There is the four-hundred-year-old Comédie-Française serenely presiding over French culture from the Salle Richelieu. The Habima Theatre of Israel ...

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