Into the Desert (1985-1999)

Words by Andrew Fuhrmann – April 2015

After his stint in Adelaide, Jim Sharman returns to Sydney and to the life of a freelance director, hurling himself into a series of those dazzling and excruciated plays by Swedish genius August Strindberg.

He begins in March 1985 at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, his old alma mater, directing 19 actors from the graduating year in a version of Dreamplay. The work, a dizzying, dark fairytale, has always held a special fascination for Sharman, with its naturalism transfigured by the heart’s black yearnings into myth and poetry, revealing what Artaud called life’s immense and universal aspect.

With a stage covered in sand and dominated by an enormous rocking horse, Sharman’s production emphasises, as the toughest and doughtiest of the Sydney critics Harry Kippax puts it, the beauties of light and shadow and movement, speech and silence. The production, he says, is a thing of enchantment.

“Strindberg depicted a world on the razor’s edge, not unlike the world we live in today, and his plays are emotional journeys, trials by fire,” says Sharman in an interview at the time. “Fear was at the base of Strindberg’s plays; fear makes for danger and danger makes for exciting theatre.”

This is another of the lessons Sharman learned in sideshow alley: the drama won’t thrill unless the stakes are high.

The Dance of Death, adapted by Sharman and May-Brit Akerholt, follows soon after for the Sydney Theatre Company, with Rhys McConnochie and Gillian Jones as the deathly duelling husband and wife who seem to stamp each other into the stage. Here the nuptial chamber is transformed into a black and grey fortress against a background of billowing crimson sheets, before which the rituals of pain and exploitation are played out.

The year 1986 is dominated by Richard Meale’s Voss, the opera derived from Patrick White’s novel. David Malouf writes the libretto, radically compressing the story of the German explorer’s ill-fated attempt to cross the continent, but capturing the poetical essence of his telepathic connection with Laura Trevelyan, with its open invitation to soulful, swooning, mystical fusions.

By way of stripped-back ceremonials, Sharman attempts to merge the interior world of Voss and Laura’s shared soul journey with the epic landscapes of deserts and scrub. The set is by Brian Thomson, lighting by Nigel Levings and Luciana Arrighi designs the costumes. The part of Voss is sung by noted Australian baritone Geoffrey Chard, a distinguished Verdian who had also sung Wagner for Reginald Goodall in London.

In some ways, Voss represents a culmination of the hopes Sharman had when he returned to Australia more than a decade earlier. Here was a new work, created for the national opera company that took the repertoire in a new direction, away from the traditional European chocolate box of establishment expectation. Later that year the opera goes to both Sydney and Melbourne. In 1987 it’s released internationally on the Philips label, and in 1988 the recording is broadcast on the ABC.

The following year, Sharman again works with Malouf, directing his first play, Blood Relations, for the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the Sydney Theatre Company.

Later that same year he directs the Australian premiere of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, which yields a breath-taking performance by Kaarin Fairfax as Beth, the brutalised young wife. This is his third encounter with Shepard, having previously directed Richard O’Brien in both The Unseen Hand and The Tooth of Crime at London’s Royal Court. It’s also his fourth collaboration in a row with lighting designer Nigel Levings. And it’s also, a bit surprisingly, the first time that he has worked with Company B at Belvoir. Later in 1987 Sharman will join the Company B board.

The next year he returns again to NIDA, this time to do a production of Genet’s The Screens, the play which Peter Brook famously did at the RSC as part of his Theatre of Cruelty season.

Then it was Opera Australia again for Stravinsky’s The Rakes Progress with its libretto by Auden, working with designers Tim Ferrier and Ross Wallace, the same young graduates who had designed Dreamplay for him.

Through the early nineties, Sharman’s work in the theatre is intermittent. In 1990 he returns briefly to the world of musicals to direct the Sydney production of Chess, with Tim Rice’s lyrics and its score by the boys from ABBA. With this popular fantasy of East-West rivalry, the transported Sharman renews a friendship with Rice that goes back to his Superstar days.

Then, in 1992, in a coproduction with the Queensland Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Sharman directs his own work, Shadow and Splendour, based loosely on the life of Richard Sorge, the famous German-born Russian spy who infiltrated Japanese high command during World War Two. The play is in fact a compromised staging of a proposed film. In his memoir Blood and Tinsel, Sharman describes the story of Sorge as unfinished business. If nothing else, the play confirms Sharman’s enduring fascination with the land of the rising sun.

In 1993 Sharman produces a documentary on Patrick White in collaboration with White’s biographer David Marr.The Burning Piano: A Portrait of Patrick White featured interviews with and readings by such eminent figures as Judy Davis, Kate Fitzpatrick, Barry Humphries, Robyn Nevin, Geoffrey Rush and Kerry Walker. Unfortunately, [legal] issues with footage used in the documentary mean that it can no longer be shown.

In 1994, Sharman works again with the NIDA Company on a production of The Wedding Song, a musical by Hilary Bell and Stephen Rae. And in 1995 he returns to Strindberg with a hard-edged production of Miss Julie and the Stronger for the State Theatre Company of South Australia. For Miss Julie, Pamela Rabe is Julie and Robert Menzies is Jean, while in The Stronger Rabe is joined by Jeanette Cronin.

It’s interesting to consider this turn to Strindberg in the latter years of Sharman’s career as a stage director. It’s as though Strindberg represents a purification of the old discernable wish to transcend the sawdust and tinsel, the surface glitz of the theatre, and explore those regions of soul the medium habitually leaves in shade.

In 1997, as to confirm this turn toward last things, he directs The Tempest for Bell Shakespeare with John Bell as Prospero. And, with the exception of a workshop musical for the Sydney Theatre Company, this is the last thing seen on the stage from the one-time wunderkind in the noisy prattling nineties, as the millennium looms.