Return to Oz (1976-1984)

Words by Andrew Fuhrmann – April 2015

And so Jim Sharman, after seven years directing blockbuster musicals around the world, comes back to Australia to reconnect with his roots.

He turns down invitations to direct Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in London and instead takes up with novelist and nobel laureate Patrick White, another Australian prodigal son returned from Europe. Sharman’s return journey recalls White’s own, though in a context of greater commercial success.

White had withdrawn from playwriting and the Australian theatre more than a decade before, writing nothing new for the stage after Night on Bald Mountain in 1964 and vetoing any attempt to revive the four already published plays. But White’s passion for the stage is only dormant, not extinguished. All it requires is a ministering angel in the form of a director he trusts.

So, in 1976, Sharman revives The Season at Sarsaparilla in a production for the Old Tote. In collaboration with designer Wendy Dickson, who had designed the 1964 production of White’s Night on Bald Mountain, Sharman’s production emphasises the essential spirituality underlying White’s suburban charade, the gravity of his vision and its implicit religious intensity.

“The origins of a play like The Season at Sarsaparilla are medieval morality plays,” says Sharman, “where you wheeled three carts into a market square, heaven, hell and earth. We understood that what we were dealing with was something very ancient.”

The success of this revival—and the inspiration he takes from his young interpreters—encourages White to start writing for the theatre again.

Almost immediately, new work for the stage starts appearing and Sharman, this time with Brian Thomson as his designer, produces Big Toys in 1977, a play White had written with leading actors Kate Fitzpatrick, Max Cullen and Arthur Dignam in mind. The return of White to the theatre arouses considerable fascination, and although White’s shift from a form of poetic realism to openly political satire leaves some reviewers scratching their heads, the production, with its suave intimations of the moral void beneath the penthouse, does well at the Parade Theatre in Sydney, and later at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne.

Then in 1978, Sharman launches an ambitious experimental company with fellow director Rex Cramphorn: the Paris Company. The idea, as Cramphorn described it, was to present new Australian work of a large scale which did not necessarily fit a naturalistic nature.

Here Sharman directs Dorothy Hewett’s Pandoras Cross. Unfortunately, despite Sharman’s reputation, it fails to attract audiences to the soon-to-be demolished Paris Theatre on Liverpool Street. Audience numbers are low and financial problems soon force premature closure.

White’s A Cheery Soul, originally planned as the third Paris Company production, ends up being presented in January 1979 as part of the interim World Theatre programme that launches the new Sydney Theatre Company, that phoenix from the ashes of the Old Tote.

It’s a significant moment in the history of Australian theatre, transforming White’s once-despised folly into an instant classic. Abandoning the clutter of the original fussily naturalistic stage directions, Sharman puts the play on an almost bare stage with a minimalist set by Brian Thomson. Robyn Nevin gives what will become one of the most notable performances ever seen on the Australian stage as Miss Docker, the monster of virtue who tests, tries and wreaks havoc on the timid men and women of Sarsaparilla. It is an iconic performance in the history of Australian theatre, and the fact that White’s play can sustain acting of this kind makes everyone reevaluate the quality of his dramatic writing. It also works to enhance Sharman’s reputation as an utterly serious theatrical innovator not just a hip boulevardier.

This is something different for Australia, the suburbs elevated and transfigured through a thoroughly internationalised aesthetic, a sort of high modernism. And it’s all done on a large scale, with an epic sense of amplitude, like a new Peer Gynt or Mother Courage.

During this period, Sharman makes the feature film The Night the Prowler from a screenplay by Patrick White. The film makes no money, but the experience encourages White to continue to write screenplays. It was Sharman’s second feature in two years, the Summer of Secrets having won both the critics’ award and the jury prize at the Paris Festival of the Cinema Fantastique.

Another film will follow in the early eighties when Sharman directs the long-awaited Rocky Horror sequel, Shock Treatment, again with Richard O’Brien and Brian Thomson. But he begins the new decade with a return to opera – his first since the landmark Don Giovanni of 1968 – directing the first Australian performance of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice for the 1980 Adelaide Festival.

Designed by Brian Thomson with costumes by Luciana Arrighi, Sharman’s production is at once monumental and labyrinthine as Aschenbach progresses through his bedazzled erotic obsession with Tadzio towards death. Athletic teenagers, choreographed by Ian Spink, gambol and romp before towering black walls and billowing silk sheets in a play of light and shade that is at once majestic and sinister. Myer Fredman conducts a cast including Australian tenor Robert Gard as Aschenbach.

The production is later revived, with new choreography the great Meryl Tankard, for Opera Australia for their 1989 Sydney and 1991 Melbourne seasons, and was last seen—again re-jigged by Sharman and Thomson—in 2005 for the company’s Sydney season.

Sharman’s work at this time is increasingly centred on Adelaide. In 1981, he produces Louis Nowra’s adaptation of Wedekind’s Lulu for the State Theatre of South Australia, and then in 1982 he becomes the artistic director of the Adelaide Arts Festival, at this time the most important festival of its kind in the country.

As the head of the Adelaide Festival, he commissions Patrick White to write a new play, Signal Driver, for director Neil Armfield, and also commissions a new play from David Hare, A Map of the World. He brings out the German Tanztheater wonderwoman Pina Bausch, and gets the expatriate Australian director Elijah Moshinsky and Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström in the Australian premiere of Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair.

Then, from 1982 until 1983, Sharman works as artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, relaunching it as Lighthouse. The major innovation here is the creation of a permanent ensemble of actors including Robert Menzies, Geoffrey Rush, Kerry Walker, John Wood, Gillian Jones, Melita Jurisic, Robert Grubb and Peter Cummins.

Through Lighthouse, Neil Armfield emerges as a major artist, directing a memorable production of Twelfth Nightand the premiere of Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant Is Dancing.

The Sharman highlights at Lighthouse include a production of A Midsummer Nights Dream with Geoffrey Rush as Oberon and Gillian Jones as Titania, and a very stark Mother Courage, designed by Englishwoman Sue Blane – who did those notorious Rocky Horror costumes – and with Kerry Walker in one of the performances of her career as Mother Courage.

He directs Lorca’s compact dream-tragedy of earth and anger, Blood Wedding, with the duende of the piece hyper-visible in the saturated Mars-red lighting design. And there are also two new plays by Louis Nowra, Royal Show and Sunrise, as well as Netherwood, another play from Patrick White. Lighthouse upended the State theatre model, which had tended to emphasise “the best of Broadway and the West End”, and made the radical re-interpretation of classics and new Oz writing a priority.

Sharman’s production of Netherwood, a sprawling dreamplay where madness seems a last defence against the terrors of the real world, goes to the Seymour Centre for the 1984 Sydney Festival, but this is the last time the play has been seen in a professional production.

As I have argued elsewhere, White’s work is a standing invitation to any director or designer who wants to show again what is possible in the theatre. All instability, flight, and endless opportunity, it is the sort of work that nourishes ambitious theatre-makers.

In a time when bright young things are falling over themselves to remake the ancient classics, why aren’t we seeing similarly radical reinterpretations of the Australian repertoire? Plays like Netherwood, and the other late plays of Patrick White, difficult as they are, should not be allowed to languish.

It is in this sense that Sharman’s legacy, and particularly his work with Patrick White, needs to be understood as a vital link in a living chain: as something which belongs to all who have an interest in Australian theatre, and something which needs to be engaged by new theatre-makers, whether in a spirit of renewal or self-conscious resistance.