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My theatrical encounter with Don Dunstan


Penne Hackforth-Jones The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Sometimes, with no warning, a rush of images, memories and names comes rampaging out of the past — a kind of existential ambush that takes you back to that 'foreign country' that you thought you'd long since left behind. Usually something triggers this ambush, a name, a news item, a photograph, occasionally even a scent.

In my case there were two triggers within a day or so of each other.

The first was the 40th anniversary of the Adelaide Festival Centre. Opening officially on 2 June 1973, one of the great monuments to the 'Dunstan Decade', it was the first capital city complex devoted to the performing arts, winning that honour by three months in a photo finish with the Sydney Opera House.

The second trigger was, sadly, the death of actress Penne Hackforth-Jones (pictured).

During the late 1970s I was writing a book on Henry Lawson. Hackforth-Jones was the great granddaughter of Lawson's contemporary, Barbara Baynton, whose bush stories were even grimmer than Lawson's.

We met during a conference in Sydney. She was charming, witty and a mine of information about our mutual interest, Australian literature of the 1890s. She was planning to write a biography of Baynton which, despite a crowded stage and film career, she completed ten years later — Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds.

One of her brief early roles was as Ginny Campbell in the long running ABC TV soap, Bellbird. In the same series, an emerging actor named Robin Ramsay played the part of shonky stock and station agent, Charlie Cousens. When, after many episodes, Ramsay wanted to move on, Cousens was 'killed off' — as I remember it, he fell to his death from a silo. Hundreds of viewers were enraged and some sent flowers to the ABC for Charlie's funeral.

One of Ramsay's post-Bellbird plans was to indulge a long time interest in Henry Lawson but many commitments intervened, including playing Pilate in Jim Sharman's long running Jesus Christ Superstar, and he didn't get round to his Lawson project until 1977. When he did, he wrote to me asking permission to use a quotation from my Lawson book, The Receding Wave, in the theatre program for his The Bastard From The Bush. I agreed.

Meanwhile, in 1973, the Adelaide Festival Centre had opened to much fanfare and flourish. The complex grew in the following years with the addition of the Playhouse — later the Dunstan Playhouse, where I saw Ramsay's The Bastard From The Bush when it toured to Adelaide — the Amphitheatre, the Space and a new restaurant.

Opposite, in the Pioneer Women's Memorial Garden, the famous tents of the Adelaide Festival Writers Week appeared when the increasingly popular literary event moved out of the lecture theatres of Adelaide University and began its dynamic life en plein air.

Towards the end of the 1970s I became a member of the Adelaide Writers Week Committee. It had been the custom in previous years to have a commemorative session on an Australian writer. Henry Handel Richardson and Christopher Brennan were among those honoured in the early years. Possibly because I was a newchum, I got the job for Writers Week 1980.

I decided to stage a kind of play for voices — a couple of critics, a poet, a narrator and two actors. Apart from the critics' contributions on Lawson's work, and the narrator's story line, the script consisted entirely of excerpts from Lawson stories, ballads and letters.

For the female voices I tried to get Hackforth-Jones. She was keen but unavailable, so I signed up a talented local actress, Anna Pike. For the role of Lawson I decided to go for broke and ask Ramsay. He said yes. That left the narrator, an important role requiring someone with a fine voice, good timing, impeccable presence. With an insouciance that still embarrasses me when I look back, I asked Don Dunstan himself. He too said yes.

So we did it and it was a hit.

I had arranged lunch for the cast in the Festival Centre restaurant when the show was over and I walked across with Dunstan. As we approached the splendid building, its domes and contours glowing in the bright autumnal sun, he stopped, waved an arm to encompass the whole scene and said, with an ironic grin, 'I did that.'

Two days ago I heard ABC Classic FM's Julia Lester celebrating the 40-year-old Festival Centre. And I found the program for The Bastard From The Bush, signed by Ramsay, and the program for the Writers Week Lawson show signed by all the cast. Then, when I opened The Age I saw the death notice of Hackforth-Jones.

And so, from that foreign country where they do things differently, the ambush came — with all its poignant and irresistible force. 

Brian Matthews smilingBrian Matthews is Honorary Professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer. 

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Henry Lawson, Barbara Baynton, Jim Sharman, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sydney Opera House



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Existing comments

yes, Brian, it really is foreign country ... and your writing brought it suddenly close to me ... best wishes and thank you

Joe Woodward | 24 May 2013  

Evocative Brian - thanks Here's the conclusion of a poem on the same subject. ...So the sight of a certain shade of red, the sound of someone whistling, the taste of mango, a line of poetry one has not heard since primary school can retrieve what once seemed lost forever. There is probably a scientific explanation but to me it seems embedded in the senses, in our chemistry, in the cerebrum. It makes computers look simple.

Rod Horsfield | 30 May 2013  

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