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History of Shakespeare in Australia By Simon Plant

All the world’s a stage for William Shakespeare.

Australia is no exception.

From earliest convict days, the Bard’s immortal plays have been a staple part of our literary landscape, located at the very heart of our dramatic repertoire, and performed in every corner of the country: in plush theatres and outback tents, in gallery courtyards and botanic gardens.

Sometimes, overseas artists – Charles Kean and Gustavus Brooke, Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn – have helped Australians brush up on their Shakespeare. More often, our appreciation has been nurtured by home grown companies led by Barnett Levey and George Coppin in the 19th century, Allan Wilkie and John Alden in the 20th, John Bell and Glenn Elston in the 21st. Their dedicated efforts – often in the face of indifference and financial hardship – have seen the performance of Shakespearean plays acquire a distinctively Australian quality: respectful and irreverent, literate and fiercely physical.

A primitive convict-era Sydney theatre announced it was presenting ‘Henry the Fourth’ on April 8, 1800. But Levey, an enterprising merchant and publican, is believed to have staged Australia’s first semi professional production of a Shakespeare play: ‘Richard III’ at Sydney’s Theatre Royal on December 26, 1833, with popular colonial actor John Meredith in the title role.

The performance was so apparently unruly, members of the audience were forced to take refuge on the stage but as author Hal Porter records: “Most Australian audiences of the time (early 19th century) were untrained, undisciplined and uncouth."

The discovery of gold in the 1850s had a civilising impact on the cultural life of colonial Australia. As fortune hunters from around the world flooded in, and cities expanded, there was a desire to replicate the cultural institutions of the Old World.

Actor-managers such as Henry Deering and George Coppin were ready to meet demand for improved entertainment – from pantomines and circus to melodramas and Shakespearean plays – and set about presenting these in more elaborate proscenium arch theatres. ‘Hamlet’ proved especially popular with diggers who were not averse to pelting favoured performers with gold nuggets.

Coppin, originally a strolling player from Sussex whose forte was low comedy, introduced Gustavus Vaughan Brooke to Australian audiences. This acclaimed Irish tragedian, noted for a grand declamatory style, gave 200 performances here and extended his repertoire to 23 Shakespearean plays.

Brooke’s emotion-charged Othello earned the highest praise. One night in Melbourne, appreciative colonists presented him with a figure of Shakespeare in gold.

Coppin, an indefatigable impresario, had high hopes as well for Charles and Ellen Kean. The Kean’s were British theatre royalty, renowned in London for their grand, fastidious productions of Shakespeare.

“I daresay we shall revolutionise their taste,” Mrs Kean wrote ahead of their journey south.

But in deciding to tour these tragedians in 1863, Coppin faced stiff competition from Barry Sullivan, a younger actor whose vigorous performance style-was dismissed by the Kean’s as “nothing but raving and extravagance.”

Anticipating the English visitors’ arrival, Sullivan splashed large bill posters around town, lowered his ticket prices and doubled down with identical repertoire. One week in Melbourne, Sullivan and Kean played the same play (‘Richard III’) in theatres just one block apart.

Newspapers inflamed emotions, taking sides in what came to be called the Melbourne Shakespeare War of 1863, but Keans’ sturdy performances – his Shylock and her Lady Macbeth were especially admired  – earned the approval of colonial high society.

Shakespeare’s tercentenary in 1864 was cause for celebration. In Melbourne, a bust of the Bard was unveiled outside the State Library while a stained glass Shakespeare window – commissioned by Coppin – became a beloved feature of his Haymarket theatre. Vice Regal support also encouraged the formation of Shakespeare appreciation societies where members met to give readings and papers.

Coppin, who later toured the Kean’s through North America, claimed that he “always lost money by Shakespeare without a first class star.”

The arrival of acclaimed English actor-manager George Rignold in Australia in 1876 seemed to confirm this. His blood and thunder “tableau” version of ‘Henry V’ was a sensation but unlike Brooke and Sullivan before him, who offered cut down versions of Shakespeare and supplemented these with comedies, Rignold’s company offered a single un-cut play where continuous action unfolded against a sequence of spectacular scenes.

The other important innovation of the 1870s and 80s was a change in repertoire for “high class” female stars”, emphasising leading Shakespearean roles such as Rosalind and Juliet.

At the high watermark of Queen Victoria’s reign, Shakespeare was promoted in Australia as “the Great Poet of our race”, but as Federation dawned, and the Bard’s plays appeared on secondary school syllabuses, a new generation of performers set about making Shakespeare more accessible.

Actor and dramatist Oscar Asche – a Geelong boy – impressed with dynamic productions of rarely performed comedies such as ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘As You Like It’. Asche’s larger than life performance as Petruchio in the ‘Shrew’ was, reportedly, a carbon copy of his off stage manner.

Allan Wilkie established Australia’s first permanent Shakespearean company in September, 1920. An independent venture, it managed to present 27 Shakespeare plays before folding in 1930. Wilkie, an Englishman who settled in Australia, was a traditionalist in style and approach – he deplored modern dress productions – but Hal Porter credits him with “letting Shakespeare speak for himself … there was no break in the dramatic current, no cooling off of the audience between scenes.”

Homegrown theatre was difficult to sustain through the Great Depression of the 1930s and, later, the Second World War. But actor-manager John Alden – who played to Occupation forces in Japan – revived local interest in Shakespeare in the late 1940s by presenting lively productions of ‘The Tempest’ and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ for Sydney’s Independent Theatre.

Following in Wilkie’s footsteps, Alden formed his own classical company in 1950 and toured Shakespeare around Australia, most memorably with a 1953 version of ‘Titus Andronicus’. Alden went on to be artistic director of the J.C Williamson Shakespeare Company and mounted a festival of Shakespeare in Sydney in 1961.

Tours by distinguished British companies set new standards for local production. The Old Vic Theatre Company arrived in 1948 and its headline stars – Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh – were accorded the status of visiting royalty. Olivier’s electrifying performance in ‘Richard III’ stood out but the entire tour had a “dazzling” impact on “rising young (Australian) talents in the serious amateur and semi professional theatre.”

A year later, J.C Williamson’s imported the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company for a brief tour. The company – led by Anthony Quayle – featured two Australians in its cast, Leo McKern and Keith Michell.

“Tours such as these may have reactivated interest in Shakespeare but they also served to reinforce the English context,” writes cultural historian John Rickard. The Australian Elizabethan Trust, founded in 1954, set out to “make the theatre in Australia the same vigorous and significant force in our national life that it was in the reign of the first (Queen) Elizabeth’.

The Trust’s Young Elizabethan Players were central to this project, touring abridged Shakespeare plays throughout Australia from 1958. In 1964, the Melbourne Theatre Company marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with ‘Hamlet’ but the company’s most ambitious production came five years later when a 27-strong cast performed ‘Henry IV’ at the National Gallery of Victoria, in the open air in an Elizabethan-style courtyard.

“It was a colossal event which gave us an inkling of what it must have been like in Shakespeare’s day,” MTC director John Sumner recalled.

New, modern ways of interpreting the Bard were signalled in 1973 when the Royal Shakespeare Company toured Australia with Peter Brook’s celebrated version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. But Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre Company – established three years earlier by John Bell and Ken Horler – brought a distinctive Australian atmosphere to their boisterous versions of ‘Twelfth Night’, 'Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘The Comedy of Errors’. Another Harbour City hit was 1979’s ‘Boy’s Own Macbeth’, starring Grahame Bond (aka Aunty Jack), an uproarious take on the Scottish play as a “really rotten tragedy”.

Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre, founded in 1978, re-examined classic texts with innovative productions of ‘Hamlet’, ‘Measure for Measure’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Into the 1980s and 90s, co-founder Carrillo Gantner took Shakespeare into new geographic realms by touring ‘King Lear’ to Japan and South Korea and collaborating with a Japanese company on ‘The Chronicle of Macbeth’.

In 1987, Melbourne advanced outdoor theatre with the formation of Shakespeare Under the Stars. Director Glenn Elston presented family-friendly plays such as ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for appreciative audiences in parks and gardens. Joining the Australian Shakespeare Company in 1998, as artistic director and producer, Elston has now taken the best of the Bard to over one million people.

The other great force for change has been Bell Shakespeare, established in 1990 by actor-director  John Bell with a view to connecting Australian audiences with Shakespeare in a “relevant and exciting way”.

The company’s 2018 season included ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Bell’s mission statement, issued nearly 30 years ago, points the way forward: “Shakespeare’s legacy to successive generations is his firm faith in human potential. His writing challenges us to reach beyond our grasp and gives us the wherewithal to imagine our future.”


Brian Carroll, Australian Stage Album (Macmillan, 1976), p. 10

John Rickard, ‘Shakespeare’ entry in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Ed. Philip Parsons with Victoria Chance (Currency Press, Sydney, 1995), p.522

Hal Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Rigby, Adelaide, 1965), p.31

For a detailed description of Coppin’s relationship with Gustavus Brooke, see Alec Bagot, Coppin The Great: Father of the Australian Theatre (Melbourne University Press, 1965)

Paul McGuire, The Australian Theatre: An Abstract and Brief Chronicle in Twelve Parts (Oxford University Press, 1948), p.97

See Hardwick J M D, Emigrants in Motley: The Journey of Charles and Ellen Kean in their quest of theatrical fortune in Australia and America, as told in their hitherto unpublished letters (Salisbury Square, London, 1954)

See Flaherty, Kate and Lamb, Edel, ‘The 1863 Melbourne Shakespeare War: Barry Sullivan, Charles and Ellen Kean, and the Play of Cultural Usurpation on the Australian Stage’, Australian Studies (Vol 4, 2012)

Rickard, p.523

See Richard Fotheringham’s ‘George Rignold’ entry in Parsons, p.502

See Harold Love’s ‘Star system’ entry in Parsons, p.552-553

Rickard, p.523

Porter, p.97

See Lisa Warrington’s ‘Allan Wilkie’ entry in Parsons, p.640

Porter, p.112-113

See Malcolm Robertson’s ‘John Alden’ entry in Parsons, p.36

The 40-strong Old Vic Theatre Company toured Australia for seven months, playing ‘Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, and Brisbane. See Garry O’Connor, Darlings of The Gods (Coronet Books, 1989)

See ‘Old Vic Theatre Company’ entry in Parsons, p.415

See John Kardoss, A Brief History of the Australian Theatre (New Century Press, 1955)

Rickard, p.524

See Helen Musa’s ‘Australian Elizabethan Trust’ entry in Parsons, p.72. See also Hugh Hunt, The Making of Australian Theatre (Cheshire, 1960)

John Sumner, Recollections at Play: A Life in Australian Theatre (MUP, 1993), p.201-202

See John Bell, On Shakespeare (Allen and Unwin, 2011)

Bell, p.379. See also catalogue for After Shakespeare exhibition, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne (July 2016-January 2017)