Beginnings (1964-1969)

Words by Andrew Fuhrmann – April 2015

It is 1964 and the times are a-changin’. It is the year of the Rolling Stones’ first LP and the year of Andy Warhol’s The American Supermarket. It is the year of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with the young Glenda Jackson. In America, Lyndon Johnson wins a resounding victory against Barry Goldwater despite the spectre of the Vietnam War. And in Sydney, Jim Sharman, aged nineteen, begins a two-year production course at the National Institute for the Dramatic Arts.

At this time, NIDA is still a relatively small institution, but it suits an ambitious, improvisational temperament like Sharman’s. Apart from directing in-house productions of Pirandello, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams and Brecht, and some work experience as a lackey with the Elizabethan Trust Opera, his time is well spent running after those of his elders who he feels he can learn from.

After graduating in 1966, Sharman launches a new company, the Group Theatre, staging Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking kitchen-sink drama A Taste of Honey at Sydney’s Cell Block Theatre. The season runs only four nights, but it gets noticed.

The high-spirited young cast is led by the nineteen-year-old Helen Morse (in the part Rita Tushington played in Tony Richardson’s film). Delaney’s rough, comic mother/daughter drama unfolds across a stage set like an abstract junkyard, all artfully displaced scrap iron sheets.

“It’s a play to do with adolescence,” Sharman later recalls, “and we were more or less going through some of the experiences of the play so it seemed to have some sort of emotional quality and perhaps visual distinction to it, which brought it to the attention of various theatre companies.”

As a directorial debut, Sharman’s production is imaginative, resourceful and above all strikingly mature. His signature is unmistakable from the outset.

In his first year out of NIDA, Sharman directs a further six productions. Working again with the Group there’s the very popular On Stage Oz (a revue written by the team at Oz magazine) followed by the Cockney sprawl of Ann Jellicoe’s The Sport of My Mad Mother: Then there’s a production Genet’s The Maids, again with the Group, which features music by a young Richard Meale, the composer who will wrest Patrick White’s Voss into the opera Sharman directs twenty years later.

It’s a sign of its times that The Maids is staged as part of a larger “happening”, which involves five hours of comedy sketches and live rock music.

Theatre and rock’n’roll? Jim Sharman, the son of a boxing-tent entrepreneur, who spent so much of his childhood around travelling sideshows, vaudeville and circus entertainment, shows here his natural instinct for participatory spectacle – and for how it must be reinvented with each new generation. Some new revolution for the stage is brewing here beneath the discotheque lights.

Harry Martin’s The Gents follows—set in a public lavatory designed by the celebrated pop artist and cartoonist Martin Sharp—and then Harold Pinter’s The Lover, with Max Meldrum as the role-playing husband and Anne Haddy as his wife. Both plays were part of Q Theatre’s busy lunchtime program at the AMP Theatrette. One can only wonder at how Pinter’s disquieting, off-beat rhythms must have worked on the crowd of shoppers and office workers.

Between these two there’s also Wesker’s class-conflict drama Chips With Everything for the Independent Theatre. This is the first time Sharman is actually paid to direct, and he gets fifty dollars—the equivalent of a few hundred today.

And then—like the sombre notes of something else again—he thunders his way into Don Giovanni. It is produced by the Elizabethan Trust Opera, and stands as a major landmark in Sharman’s career, and in the history of opera in Australia.

After a brief stint as an assistant director with the Trust, Sharman gets himself into the position of directing his own production of the opera. At first he is asked to oversee a revival, but instead Sharman uses the meagre funds allowed him for the restoration of damaged sets to create something original. It is, of necessity, a radically stripped back production, but it is nonetheless radically new.

The upshot of Sharman’s notorious chess-board production of the Don is uproar followed by glory. The critics in Melbourne hate it because they take Sharman’s minimalism as a savage stripping of the altar of art. It takes Kurt Preraurer in Sydney, music critic for The Nation, a man of formidable learning and sensitivity who witnessed European modernism at first hand, to see the Sharman Don Giovanni for what it really is: the first truly Australian reimagining of an opera.

It introduces into Australian opera the sort of post-War Regietheater of Wieland Wagner: austere, bold, full of atmospheric contrasts of light and dark, with an essentially abstract shaping of dramatic space. But it also allows for Mozart’s enormous and embracing sense of fun, and for that ambiguous classicism where life and love and even death are staged as an elaborate game.

Following the Don, there’s another Pinter, The Birthday Party, for St Martins in Melbourne. Then there is And So to Bed for the National Theatre in Perth. After taking a job with the Old Tote in 1968 he directs the premiere of Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed, the play which would later attract such controversy in Brisbane and Melbourne.

He also directs that old charmer among Bernard Shaw’s pleasant plays, You Never Can Tell, for the Old Tote, with a cast that includes Jacki Weaver and Ron Haddrick among others. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Harry Kippax describes it as the Old Tote’s one credit for that year. Sharman’s future collaborator Rex Cramphorn, who dislikes the play itself, describes Sharman’s production somewhat grudgingly as smooth, honest and thoroughly professional.

But just before the Shaw, Sharman does the infamous Terror Australis at Jane Street Theatre. Bustled in through a sheep race, the audience is confronted with a cast baa-baaing their way through the national anthem. Helen Morse is up there and so is Garry McDonald. It’s a revue, but without anything knockabout or burlesque or good humoured in it.

“It’s violent in that it is an attack on the audience,” Sharman said at the time, taking no prisoners.

It’s mordant, moralistic and at the same time magical, with all the hostility and energy of a generation raised on rock’n’roll. After being reviewed damningly in the The Sydney Morning Herald, Patrick White himself—who knew theatre magic when he saw it—was moved to defend the show in a letter to the editor.

Coming events cast their shadows before them, and such a shadow is Terror Australis. It is a cultural intervention which presages a revolution, a new way of doing things on the stage and a counter culture entire. The year was 1968.