In 1947, under the auspices of Marjorie McLeod the Swan Hill Branch of the National Theatre Movement held the first of their annual Shakespeare Festivals. CHERYL THREADGOLD recounts the story of a remarkable woman who brought the Bard to the bush.

Every autumn for almost thirty years, the Victorian town of Swan Hill became famously known as ‘Australia’s Stratford-on-Murray’ when the Swan Hill Branch of the National Theatre Movement brought ‘the Bard’ to regional Victoria. Swan Hill’s annual Shakespeare Festivals, believed to be the largest Shakespeare Festival in the southern hemisphere, combined street processions with splendidly decorated floats, fairs, entertainment, debates, films and Shakespearian performances. Colourful Arts Balls resembling those held by Melbourne’s National Theatre soon also joined the event line-up. From a fledgling start of presenting one Shakespeare play in 1947, confidence and talents developed, more townsfolk became involved, and the annual Shakespeare Festival grew into a five-day event attracting national interest. There were attendances from State Governors, Vice-Regal patronage, interstate visitors, broadcasts by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, visits from theatrical and academic notables, and press coverage from big-city journalists who visited Swan Hill and wrote glowing stories for their newspapers and magazines.

In April 1951, Norman Dunbar from Melbourne’s Argus newspaper recognised the cultural benefits of the Swan Hill Shakespeare Festivals in his article titled ‘William Shakespeare of Swan Hill’: “The bearded Bard of Avon is being enshrined in the Murray River town with the same pomp and extravagance as he has in his home town of Stratford, the mecca of the English-speaking world. Instead of being an excuse for vivid costuming and violent enunciation by an amateur company, Shakespeare in Swan Hill is the cause of a nearly 100 per cent community effort … I may as well be completely gauche and say it is the healthiest sign of cultural development I have seen in any country town in this state.”

Two years later, in a 1953 article for the Department of Interior titled ‘Shakespeare is Enshrined on Australia’s Murray River’, John Loughlin described Swan Hill as  ‘a bustling little town in Australia’s Murray River Valley’. He writes of the town ‘celebrating the birthday of Will Shakespeare this year with a whole-hearted fervour usually evoked by rodeos, agricultural fairs and football premierships. They opened their five-day Shakespeare Festival with Elizabethan pageantry. They carried it along with a dizzy whirl of parties, entertainments, plays and films. They brought it to an impressive conclusion by packing a fifth of the population of 5,000 into the town hall to watch a praiseworthy performance of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night’.

According to Loughlin, one critic described the Twelfth Night performance presented by the Swan Hill National Theatre as a ‘theatrical rarity’. Identical twins Marjorie and Josephine Lockhart, the young daughters of a local farmer, were especially praised for their portrayals of the twins Sebastian and Viola. ‘Altogether it was a brilliantly-staged affair, conducted in a warm friendly atmosphere with gusto and skilled direction.’

The initiative taken to form the Swan Hill Branch of the National Theatre Movement, the concept of the Shakespeare Festival, and the productions, organisation and dramatic coaching of Swan Hill locals are all thanks to former Melbourne resident Marjorie McLeod. Marjorie brought her professional theatre skills to Swan Hill and developed an unshakeable faith in theatre for the community in her new home town.

In 1940, Marjorie McLeod was a well-established actor, award-winning playwright and President of the Dramatists Club, Melbourne. On three occasions she had won the Australian Literature Society’s award for the best one-act play: A Shillingsworth (1931), Moonshine (1932) and Travail (1934). Her four-act drama Within These Walls, a period piece dealing with the early colony of Victoria, premiered at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in 1936. In the same year, Marjorie and fellow playwright John Ormiston Reid won a monetary prize offered by the Melbourne Presbyterian Church to write and produce a celebratory centenary pageant. Presented in the King’s Theatre, the grand pageant featured young people from Melbourne Presbyterian Church groups re-enacting events representing one hundred years in the life of the church.

Married in 1913, and mother to a daughter and son, Marjorie also worked for the Australian Broadcasting Commission for six years as an actor and playwright, taught voice production and dramatic art at two public schools, and conducted Shakespeare classes at the National Theatre, Melbourne, established in 1935 by her friend and associate, Gertrude Johnson.

Marjorie’s lifestyle would change after the outbreak of World War II, when her husband Norman found employment in the Victorian town of Swan Hill, situated 338 kilometres north west of Melbourne. Marjorie was familiar with country life, having been born in Dimboola in Victoria’s Western District on 27 February 1893 to Frederick and Agnes Young, and educated at Clarendon Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Ballarat. Her concern was lack of opportunity to pursue her passion for theatre. Marjorie could never have envisaged then that in 1977 she would be honoured with the British Empire Medal (BEM) for her dedicated work for theatre and the people of Swan Hill.

On arrival in Swan Hill and attending the John Knox Presbyterian Church, Marjorie was asked to form an amateur dramatic group for young people in the congregation. In June 1943, The John Knox Players’ first production, The Six Miss Seymours (by Isabel Handley) was presented in the Swan Hill Memorial Hall. Many Swan Hill men were absent serving with the forces and this play conveniently required eight females and just one male. Ticket sales raised funds for local radio station 3SH Women’s Club Merchant Navy Appeal, Soldiers’ Parcels and POW Funds.

Further plays included the comedy The Family Upstairs (by Harry Delf) in 1944, The Whole Town’s Talking (by Anita Loos and John Emerson) in 1945 and Pandora’s Box in 1946, all directed by Marjorie McLeod. Eventually a new independent group called The Barnstormers was formed under the direction of Marjorie McLeod, fundraising for charities and patriotic causes. Their first production in late 1946 was A Night of One Act Plays and Music.

After peace was declared and the Swan Hill soldiers returned home from the war, the men found many of their lady friends enjoyed acting with the drama group. It made sense to join them, and now with more male members it became easier to cast plays, and the drama group became a social club for interested young people.

Returned serviceman and former Mayor of Swan Hill, Duncan Douglas, had become interested in play readings and amateur theatre while serving in the Air Force in Canada. He called a public meeting of citizens to discuss forming a theatre group to present plays in the Swan Hill Town Hall. After an enthusiastic public response, Douglas was elected President and Marjorie McLeod was to be known as the Founder/Director/Producer.

Marjorie suggested the group align with the Australian National Theatre movement in Melbourne with which she was already connected, so the Swan Hill National Theatre formed in 1947. In April 1947, The Barnstormers’ production of The Rising Generation (by Wyn Weaver & Laura Leycester) fundraised for the Swan Hill Hospital and also the National Theatre.

The Swan Hill National Theatre group planned to entertain audiences with plays, but Marjorie McLeod envisaged more. She loved Shakespeare, had acted in many Shakespearian plays in Melbourne, and recognised more prestige for the group if they attempted productions by ‘the Bard’. School teachers were divided between wanting to help, or being wary of Marjorie’s temerity. Luckily, some ‘handsome young stripling’ lads, newly returned home from boarding schools in Geelong and Melbourne, had been introduced to Shakespeare’s plays and agreed to try acting. In August 1947, the most experienced actors presented scenes and songs from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Marjorie recalls the audience being ‘tolerant’ and the actors enjoyed the performance. Manager of radio station 3SH, Gordon Lewis, read continuity linking the scenes and farmers loaned their lorries. These were transformed into floats and decorated by Swan Hill shop proprietors for a street procession, described by Marjory as ‘itself rather a novelty for the town’. Before long, almost the whole town would become involved and more than twenty floats, decorated according to the annual theme chosen by Marjorie, would feature in the processions.

Miss Gertrude Johnson OBE, founder of the Australian National Theatre in Melbourne with which the Swan Hill group was now affiliated, launched the first official Swan Hill Shakespeare Festival in May 1949. The smartly uniformed Swan Hill brass band led the procession of floats into Riverside Park, where the community enjoyed entertainments such as junior plays, Peter Leonard’s puppet shows for the children and maypole dancing. In 1950, the Shakespeare Festivals were officially recognised by the Swan Hill Council, and Swan Hill’s business community strongly supported the Shakespeare Festivals for their local economic benefits through tourism.

On one occasion, a float merged Shakespeare with Australiana to represent the theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a Fairy Queen and Puck in a woodland setting, and children dressed as fairies using a mass of eucalyptus branches for the woodland bower. Henry VIII was the theme for another year and six beautiful young women in period costume surrounded King Henry VIII on the float. For another festival, local high school students constructed a scale model of Anne Hathaway’s cottage, the right size to be carried on a lorry. One year, the festival theme was ‘The Swan of Avon’ and a large cooperative Swan Hill store built a great white swan over a small motor car. The driver had trouble steering while peering through the small window and ran into the town clock, causing even more excitement.

Rehearsals in the early days were held in the McLeod’s sitting room in Pritchard Street. Marjorie’s non-theatrical husband Norman tolerated the enthusiastic performers rehearsing most evenings and Sunday afternoons inside their home or on the lawn. However, he is said to have ‘threatened revolt’ when three packing boxes, each three foot high, placed end to end and draped in black for Juliet’s bier and other rehearsal purposes, were positioned for weeks in the centre of the McLeod sitting room. Early one morning, Norman encountered the dark mass on his way to the kitchen to light the fire. Marjorie and her actors persuaded him of the importance to leave the bier in position for rehearsals until being moved to the town hall stage. After the performance, the bier returned to Pritchard Street, and was reportedly chopped up with gusto in about six minutes … by Norman McLeod. Eventually the group rented a small house in Rutherford Street for rehearsals, set building and committee meetings.

As well as Shakespeare, the Swan Hill Branch of the National Theatre Movement presented plays under Marjorie McLeod’s direction. The first, The New Dress (Charmeuse) by E. Temple Thurston, was presented in August 1948. This production was then taken to Melbourne for the Annual Drama Festival for branches of the National Theatre Movement, held in Eastern Hill, opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Swan Hill team returned home with the cup for Best Play and Best Acting Award. This success was repeated in 1950 when they took Charles and Mary by Joan Temple to Melbourne, and in 1955, the Swan Hill group travelled to the Frankston Mechanics’ Hall to perform The Cloak by Clifford Bax in the Victorian Drama League’s fourth One-Act Play Festival.

Three of Marjorie McLeod’s original plays were also presented by the group at various times: Within These Walls, Mine a Sad One, about explorer Robert O’Hara Burke, and Horizons which tells of the assimilation and integration of the first immigrants in the irrigation areas around the Murray River in 1952. Joan Pullen writes in Marjorie’s book All the World’s a Stage: ‘Marjorie all the time guided and advised and gave us something to do. For young people growing up in a country town, the National Theatre group was of vital importance. It gave us a sense of community, achievement and fellowship. It was a training ground for life.’

Public accommodation was limited in the 1950s and Swan Hill families generously opened their homes, farms and stations to host visitors from Melbourne and interstate. In November 1953, a Council of Adult Education documentary film The Wise Owl of Russell Street, based on the play Horizons written by Marjorie McLeod, was produced in Swan Hill, directed by Colin Dean of the Department of the Interior. The film was completed before the Royal Tour and screened in Australian cinemas before being sent abroad. Dignitaries who travelled to Swan Hill for the festivals included the Governor of Victoria, Sir Dallas Brooks, who opened the 1955 Swan Hill Shakespeare Festival from the town hall, and returned to attend the festival in 1958.

John Sumner of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust opened the festival in 1958 from the town hall stage before the production of Much Ado About Nothing, and joined the young actors afterwards for refreshments while offering advice and answering questions. Another Governor of Victoria, Sir Rohan Delacombe, opened the Shakespeare Festival in 1965 and in 1972, Sir Edmund Herring, Governor of Victoria, became patron of Swan Hill. In 1973 when the Premier of Victoria, the Honourable Rupert Hamer opened the twenty-sixth Swan Hill Shakespeare Festival, he asked Marjorie why she had chosen Romeo and Juliet for the first full-length festival play. Marjorie explained she felt that almost every young woman believed in her heart she was a Juliet, and her experience with students had taught her that every young man enjoys playing with swords!

It was big morale boost for the actors and town of Swan Hill when Frank Clewlow, Director of Drama at the Australian Broadcasting Commission, visited one of the early Swan Hill Shakespeare Festivals. He was so impressed with the community effort, the colourful floats in the street procession and the performance of the play As You Like It, he arranged for a landline direct from Swan Hill to the ABC and used it to broadcast a play presented by Swan Hill National Theatre actors, to be heard by all ABC listeners.

The new Supervisor of Drama and Features, Henry Cuthbertson, continued the ABC’s interest in the Swan Hill National Theatre, first visiting the town to include the group’s actors in the ABC’s plan for regional drama. He had heard of the high reputation of the Swan Hill National Theatre’s Shakespeare Festivals from his home town in Perth. After auditions, a production was recorded and broadcast on the ABC. Henry Cuthbertson opened several of the festivals, bringing professional Melbourne actors with him to present some Shakespearean scenes which were also broadcast on the ABC. These actors included Wyn Roberts and Patricia Kennedy presenting scenes from Macbeth (1961), Beverley Dunn, Sydney Conabere and Douglas Kelly, who presented scenes from Othello, and Frederick Parslow featured in scenes from Julius Caesar in 1965.

Supporters who attended the Shakespeare Festivals from the education and arts sectors included theatrical entrepreneur Garnet Carroll and his wife Kitty, Colin Badger (Director of the CAE), Major General Ramsey OBE (then Director of Education), artist Ola Cohn, theatre director Wal Cherry, Australian Children’s Theatre producers Joan and Betty Raynor, Dr. Brian Cox (President of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society), Winifred Moverley, Professor David Bradley (Monash University) and drama teacher, Dulcie Bland.

Actors in the Shakespeare Festival who went on to perform professionally included children’s television show presenter Nancy Cato, theatre actor Gordon Goulding, and Don Taylor who enjoyed a career in radio. Zena Cohn had been a a professional songwriter in London before marrying Swan Hill businessman John Cohn. A gifted pianist, Zena enriched each production of Shakespeare’s plays with incidental music and accompaniments to his songs.

Dedicated company member Betty (Stephen) Jenvey, who portrayed Juliet in the very first Shakespeare Festival, has worked tirelessly for her theatre company in various areas for seventy-five years. Now in her ninety-fifth year, Bet’s roles have included actor from 1943–1970, company secretary, treasurer, committee, board of directors, producer, front of house, ticket sales, costume coordinator, mentor, and costume hirer. Photographer Mario Zaetta’s dedicated work over many years resulted in invaluable, wonderful images to publicise the Shakespeare Festivals.

Marjorie McLeod introduced Swan Hill residents of all ages to the performing arts. The town became famous for its thirty annual Shakespeare Festivals, the first of their kind in Australia, each involving a wonderful collaboration between Swan Hill community organisations, businesses, schools and individuals.

When future Mayor of Swan Hill, Councillor and Civil Celebrant David Quayle arrived in Swan Hill in 1974, another theatre company, the Musical Comedy Society, was rehearsing Showboat. Its members also belonged to the National Theatre group, but neither company was well off financially. David, who also performed in the Swan Hill National Theatre’s 1975 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, suggested merging the two groups to become known as the Swan Hill Theatre Company.

During his 47 years of honorary involvement in Committee/Board membership with the Swan Hill Theatre Group, David was particularly keen for the company to reach out to young people. Today, just as in the 1940s, the Swan Hill Theatre Group offers a vital activity for many of the town’s young people, who look forward each year to being part of the shows.

The company now owns the well-appointed Memorial Theatre at 47 McCrae Street, Swan Hill, having purchased it from the Returned Services League in 1981 when they moved premises. At this time, the company name changed to Swan Hill Theatre Group Co-operative Limited. Swan Hill was also fortunate in 1985 when theatre professional Ron Field retired to live in the town and was responsible for thirty-one musical and non-musical productions presented over twenty-three years.

The Memorial Hall’s centenary was celebrated in July 2022 with a sell-out one-night nostalgic concert titled ‘Raising the curtain on 100 years of the Memorial Hall’.

Marjorie McLeod returned to Melbourne in 1965, continuing to take a keen interest in the theatre company’s activities. School teacher and actor Bill Norton took over directing the Shakespeare Festivals. Marjorie passed away in 1988, aged ninety-five. In the Epilogue of All the World’s a Stage, Pat Fraser writes that Marjorie’s framed portrait takes pride of place above the mantelpiece in the Swan Hill Theatre Group members’ room.

‘I like to think that she is still watching over us,’ says Pat, ‘and she will be proud of the generations who have graced the boards since 1965 and of those still to come, for she has left a great love behind her in Swan Hill.

‘To quote her beloved Bard: “Love’s gentle spring doth ever fresh remain” (Venus and Adonis).’


Thanks to

Phyl Braybrook

Betty Jenvey

David Quayle

Swan Hill Theatre Group


Marjorie McLeod, All the World’s a Stage, Reflections on The Swan Hill National Theatre, Research/Editors Bet Jenvey and Joan Pullen, Barn Publishing, Mt. Eliza, 1980

Swan Hill Guardian, ‘Swan Hill Theatre Wins in Melbourne—Congratulations Mrs. McLeod’, 31 August 1948. Article provided courtesy of David Quayle.

Swan Hill Theatre Group 2013, Swan Hill Theatre Group Reunion 1941–2013

Trove, ‘Swan Hill in films’, The Argus (Melbourne), 20 November 1953, p.7, National Library of Australia,  (accessed 11 August 2022)


Published in Stage by stage
Thursday, 01 September 2022

Melba Inspired Movement

In the following article, the founder and director of the National Theatre Movement, GERTRUDE JOHNSON, tells the story of how it began, its growth, and its hopes for the future. This is a transcript of an article that appeared in Adelaide Advertiser in May 1953 to co-incide with the launch of the National Theatre's Coronation Festival Opera Season in South Australia.

Gertrude JohnsonPortrait of Gertrude Johnson, c.1952. Photo by Sarah Chinnery. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

I have been asked to state what inspired me to found this movement, and I must say that the original inspiration came to me during the last opera performance of Dame Nellie Melba. Dame Nellie had already sung her farewell at Covent Garden when Lillian Bayliss, of the Old Vic, asked her to sing just once more for the funds of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, then being built. Melba agreed to give a presentation of La Bohème with an all-Australian cast, including John Brownlee, Browning Mummery, Frederick Collier and myself. During that association one saw what wonderful opportunities the Old Vic was offering young artists, and I remarked to John Brownlee that there should be an Old Vic in every State of Australia, all combining to form a truly national theatre. John laughed and agreed that it was a grand idea, but asked who was to get the thing started?

Sadler's Wells having been built, those who assisted in the raising of funds were invited to a performance of The Snow Maiden. A young South Australian singer by the name of Olive Dyer sang the leading role on this occasion, and the thought came to me again, that opportunities such as these should be given to young Australians in their own country. I made a firm resolution that should I ever return to Australia, I would press the cause of an institution similar in function to the Old Vic.

First Approach

Three years later I was recalled to Australia for family reasons, and at a luncheon given in my honour, the opportunity arrived to voice the need of an Australian national theatre.

Fortunately the guests present were all very interested in the cultural development of the State, and the idea had an enthusiastic reception. An initial meeting was held in November 1935, and at a later meeting in February 1936, a constitution was passed.

As it was to be a people’s movement, some bright soul suggested a nominal membership fee of 1/ and £8 was collected at our first meeting. This sum opened our banking account, and in a short time we had a large enrolment of members. How ever, we soon found that the 1/ membership fee was not a good idea, the amount hardly covering the cost of postage and printing, so that suggestion was eventually dropped. It was essential to secure a regular income, and we devised a plan enabling subscribers to the movement to see eight productions a year in return for an annual membership fee. This meant, of course, that we had to have a theatre of our own to present a continuity of productions, and by good fortune we were able to rent St. Peter’s Hall, East Melbourne. This building, which became the first Australian national theatre, and is still the headquarters of our movement, has an auditorium seating 350, and rooms for studios, offices and wardrobe. We have seen great progress made in this little theatre.

Free Schools

During the period 1936–39, Mr. William P. Carr joined us as director of productions, and Miss Jean Alexander founded our ballet school. We soon had the three schools of opera, ballet and drama well established, and were able to demonstrate to the public that we were capable of producing the three arts, in addition to such theatrical presentations as pageants. Before the war most of our big productions were presented at the Princess Theatre, but with the advent of hostilities, this theatre was given over to films, and we had to be content to work in our little theatre at East Melbourne. Until then everything had been progressing wonderfully, but the effects of war threatened to destroy all our work of the past few years. Petrol rationing and black-outs caused us to lose a great number of subscribers, and at one time we thought it would be impossible for us to continue. But a good friend. Dr. Rowden White, the great educationist had been watching our struggle for survival, and he came to our financial aid. His help enabled us to carry on, and we set out to assist various war charities, eventually raising £16,000 for them. This work brought us a number of new friends who were to help us further our aims.

Our next big opportunity came in 1947, when the Princess Theatre became available once more for theatrical productions, and I was able to persuade our president, Sir Robert Knox, to launch our first festival of opera. Melbourne had not seen a professional production of opera in years and the response to our project was most gratifying, a profit of £2,000 being made on this season. Thus encouraged, we decided that our future festivals would feature the three arts. Our first professional ballet company was formed, and Kenneth Rowell was engaged to design the decor of Auroras Wedding and Romantic Suite. These two ballets created a great impression, and the 1948 festival brought us the approval of the Victorian State Government in the form of a State subsidy. This subsidy has enabled us to greatly raise our standard of production and is a practical form of help for which we are most grateful.


In 1951, we were entrusted with the Centenary of Victoria State Government festival, and we felt that the time had arrived for us to carry out the full aims of our movement. Our desire has always been to bring our famous artists back to Australia at the height of their careers so that they could be seen and heard by their fellow countrymen, and with the aid of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, we were able to present Marjorie Lawrence singing the role of Amneris in our 1951 presentation of Aida.

It was a wonderful opportunity for our talented young singers, who gained immeasurably from the experience of working with this world-famous star. The support of the ABC Orchestra, under the direction of Joseph Post, was in this, as in other festivals, of the utmost value. That year also provided us with two ballet successes, John Anthill’s Corroboree, with choreography by Rex Reid (a young Adelaide dancer who has since proved his worth overseas) and the first Australian production of the full four-act ballet, Swan Lake. This was reproduced by Joyce Graeme, with décor by Anne Church, and conducted by Verdon Williams with the 3DB Orchestra. These two ballets were chosen to tour the Commonwealth to celebrate the Jubilee, and were later taken to New Zealand.

Guest Stars

John Brownlee was our guest opera star for the 1952 festival. He sang the title role in Don Giovanni and appeared as Scarpia in Tosca. It was the first time Australia had the opportunity of seeing this artist in opera, and he created a very fine impression. Walter Gore and Paula Hinton were our guest artistes for the ballet, and they brought to us Walter Gore’s ballets, Antonia, Crucifixion, and Theme and Variations. We had been honoured with a proposed Command Performance for this season, but owing to the death of His Majesty King George VI., this was cancelled when the Queen was forced to postpone her Australian tour. However, I am happy to say that this great honour has been bestowed on us for March 1, next year, during the 1954 Royal Tour, and we look forward to presenting a programme worthy of this historic occasion.

We are very proud of the list of young artists our movement has developed. John Lanigan and John Cameron have both had signal success at Covent Garden, and Eleanor Houston, dramatic soprano, now singing with the Sadler's Well’s Company, has been hailed as one of the finest sopranos in England today. Max Cohen and Laurence Lott are two baritones who are doing very well in London, and Betna Pontin, a fine lyric soprano, has greatly impressed critics in Vienna. Lynn Golding, ballerina, created a very satisfactory impression when she danced in London recently, and Max Collis, male dancer, received much praise for his performance as Petrouchka. Adelaide’s young tenor, Kevin Miller, had a sensational success when he appeared in Melbourne as the Count in The Barber of Seville. Another young Adelaide tenor is proving himself to be a very fine Puccini singer, and I feel that Adelaide will be delighted with the young artists appearing in the forthcoming opera season.

Our hopes for the future are that each State will form a branch of the National Theatre Movement, and that a Federal Council well be set up to establish three interstate companies of opera, ballet and drama.

These will tour the Commonwealth annually, thus providing our best Australian artists with permanent work. We also desire that each State will have its own school for the three arts, developing and encouraging Australian artists who will enrich the culture of our land. I am happy to say South Australia is the first State to affiliate with our movement.


From The Advertiser (Adelaide, S.A.), Wednesday, 20 May 1953, p.5,



Published in Profiles
ROBERT TAYLOR, director of the National Theatre in St Kilda, Melbourne, for nineteen years, takes a look at the history of The Australian National Theatre Movement founded by Gertrude Johnson in 1935.

nla.obj 144259189 1Gertrude Johnson, c.1955. National Library of Australia, Canberra.If I were to construct a history of Australian theatre which included a private company (run by an opera singer!) which established one of Australia’s first training schools in opera, (1935) ballet (1939) and drama (1936) there would be those who assumed it was fiction. If I said she also ran Australia’s first professional opera (1938), ballet (1939) and drama companies (1937) in Australia, no one would believe me. If I were to add that this company led to the national companies we have today with literally years of groundwork and productions that toured Australia and New Zealand people might well think I was mad. Yet it’s all true, and the company still exists today. Her name was Gertrude Johnson and she founded The Australian National Theatre Movemement in 1935.

A brief word on the career of this amazing woman. Her professional opera debut was in 1915 in Melbourne and she was quickly offered contracts touring with professional opera companies that then operated commercially in Australia and New Zealand. In 1920 she travelled to London where she sang with The British National Opera Company at Covent Garden and in regional cities. She was heard on the first live BBC Radio Broadcast of an opera and sang Musetta to Dame Nellie Melba’s Mimi in La Boheme during one of Dame Nellie’s farewells. Having established a sympathetic relationship with composer/pianist Cyril Scott at this time they performed many concerts together and she premiered much of his work. One piece was dedicated to her. She returned to Melbourne in 1935 determined to establish a National Theatre so Australians could work and train in their own country.

Yet you simply don’t find a mention of The National Theatre Ballet Company (over 87 productions) which helped Borovansky and gave him a public stage from 1939 through the war years. The first Australian ballet using indigenous themes (Corroboree) was composed by John Antill in 1950 (choreographer Rex Reid) and toured Australia and New Zealand while the first Australian ballet based on the Melbourne Cup was actually Cup Fever (1962). The introduction of Indian and Asian forms and themes to dance in Australia? Look no further than the tours of Indra Vijayam under The National Theatre banner.

Let us drop a few names. Mary Hardy, Ray Lawler, John Cargher, George Fairfax, Stefan Haag, Rex Reid, Leon Kellaway, Frank Thring, Marie Collier, Lance Ingram, Robin Lovejoy, Marie Cumisky, Kenneth Rowell, Robert Allman, June Jago, Irene Mitchell, Nance (Nancy) Grant, Elizabeth (Betty) Fretwell, Lauris Elms, John Shaw, Dame Margaret Scott, Valrene Tweedie, Jonathan Summers, Dorothea Deegan, Anne Fraser, Kat Stewart, John Truscott, Richard Cawthorne, Helen Noonan, Lynne Golding, Joyce Graham, and Henry Danton. Just to mention a few of the great dancers, designers, actors, administrators, playwrights, and singers who started at The National. For over ten years Ray Lawler worked as an actor and director for the company which staged a dozen of his early plays before Summer of the Seventeenth Doll became an international hit for The Union Repertory Company.

While much of the programming by this mostly unfunded company relied on the classics and the plays set by the Education Department for schools, a large percentage was new and innovative. The Ballet Company introduced Australia to the first full length (4 Act) Swan Lake using the full score (1951) which then undertook national tours including New Zealand. Lynne Golding made her Melbourne debut as Odette/Odile with Henry Danton, Joyce Graeme and Leon Kellaway. ‘A milestone in the ballet in Australia … a triumphant production and a flawless performance …’ (The Sun newspaper). The production used Petipa and Ivanov’s choreography from Leningrad which was later revived by both Borovansky and The Australian Ballet. Described as flawless it received 18 curtain calls on opening night. This production ended up touring with Corroboree which was described as the first Australian Ballet using aboriginal themes. Corroboree opened in Sydney to raves and high praise of Rex Reid’s choreography and the dancers’ performances. Margaret Scott was in the cast as the Thippa Thippa Bird and is quoted (by Frank van Straten in his 1994 book National Treasure) as saying:

I think the National Theatre Ballet was far more important than Borovansky was. It was really starting something Australian, whereas Boro’s was a commercial venture with Williamson’s, recycling European tradition. Gertie’s dream of a National Theatre was much more important, much bigger, taking in the whole nation and including her schools.

The National Movement held a competition in 1952 for Best New Australian play. It was won by Cradle of Thunder by Ray Lawler, while works by Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller were premiered regularly as well as the first Australian Rules musical (All Saints Day 1961). The Drama Company presented over 114 productions alone and introduced Anne Fraser, Lewis Fiander, Zoe Caldwell, June Jago, Patricia Kennedy, Robin Lovejoy, John Truscott, Mary Hardy and many others to Australian audiences. After several attempts to gain the rights, Death of a Salesman had its Australian premiere in July 1953.

The Opera Company (over 120 productions) followed this pattern by premiering much of Menotti’s work including the spine-chilling The Consul in 1953 starring Marie Collier (who went on to have an international career) and Amahl and the Night Visitors was premiered in 1954. Not only presented in the capital cities the new works were staged in regional NSW, Victoria and SA. Tours regularly included Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and Broken Hill. This same company undertook The Flying Dutchman as its first opera in 1938 and The Royal Command Performance of Tales of Hoffman (1954) before Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Held at the Princess Theatre this production was broadcast live to the crowd gathered outside in Spring Street—an estimated audience of 20,000! Stefan Haag produced and directed the production which was the first Australian production of the opera in a modern setting. Many of those who saw it felt it didn’t work particularly and much of the opera was cut for the benefit of the Royal Party. When asked by Justine Rettick afterwards if he liked opera The Duke of Edinburgh replied that he hated it! Nonetheless the night was a sensational success with the Queen expressing the hope that the singers would all be heard in London shortly. Ironically the success of this performance gave impetus to the establishment of The Elizabethan Theatre Trust with which The National Theatre could not compete.

No mention of The National Theatre Opera Company as a precursor to The Elizabethan Theatre Trust Opera Company ever seems to find its way into the historical narrative—despite the fact that The Elizabethan Theatre Trust was established because of the success of local artistic contributions to the Royal Tour. The link is all the clearer when Gertrude Johnson (Founder and Administrator of The National Theatre) was given a place on the 1954 Advisory Board for the new Opera Company. It was hoped that the commercial opera producers (mainly E.J.Tait) would combine with The National Theatre Opera Company and the short-lived Sydney National Opera to create the new company. This was not to be due to the very strong personalities involved, which left a fully funded Government Organisation to compete with The National Theatre not only in opera but also ballet and drama. Most of the members of the new Elizabethan Theatre Company were the experienced performers and creative artists of The National Theatre.

Despite the rise of The Elizabethan Trust the National Theatre Movement was not quite done. Its three training schools were continuing and doing well. Indeed the Drama and Ballet Schools—now resident in St Kilda—are Australia’s oldest and both offer professional qualifications. The Opera School continued until 1980 when it merged fully with the new VCA School of Opera. In 2006 the VCA closed the Opera School and in 2008 Linda Thompson founded The Opera Studio whose production division is Gertrude Opera (named after The National’s Founder). It has produced two Opera Festivals in Nagambie as well as the Yarra Valley and is now known as The Australian Contemporary Opera Company. While the Opera Studio is a separate company the link continues with The Gertrude Johnson Estate providing Student Awards to all art forms.

From 1954 the National Theatre concentrated on its role as a training institute but still presenting Shakespeare and Opera in the Park (Treasury Gardens) from 1955 including the opening of the Myer Music Bowl in 1959. Featuring in all the early Moomba Festivals from 1955 (the first), its most extraordinary event was the 1958 staging of Hiawatha in the Olympic Swimming Stadium built for the 1956 Games in Melbourne. This event included singers, actors, dancers, canoe groups, life savers, choral societies and the full resources of The National Theatre with the performance taking place both in and out of the pool!

By 1969 with the last of the ten National Theatre Three Arts Festivals (started 1948) the three professional companies were officially put to bed, though in reality they had done little since 1954. A 1960 Festival had been mounted at the Palais Theatre for Moomba (with no drama component) but it was a subdued affair after the extensive seasons at the Princess Theatre. Surprisingly The National Theatre turned its attention, in association with the Tivoli Theatres, to producing musicals though its first had been Alaya at the Princess Theatre twenty years earlier. From 1961 to 1964 The Student Prince, The Desert Song, Show Boat and The New Moon were presented in both Melbourne and Sydney by the companies with much success though both Show Boat and The New Moon were faced with strong competition from touring commercial musicals. The association with the Tivoli Theatres in this period also led to a host of pantomimes which proved profitable to both groups.

Notably the National Theatre had to endure three disastrous fires starting with the Toorak Village Theatre in 1962. This was by far the most damaging as the conversion of the cinema to a live venue with spacious studios for the schools was almost complete when an electrical fault ignited on 18 April. The building was totally destroyed leaving Toorak Road closed while the walls teetered. Initial plans to build a new home on the same site became impossible as costs escalated. Eventually the company had to sell and then lost its temporary home (Toorak Theatrette) in a nearby building to fire in 1968. Productions moved to The Union Theatre at Melbourne University, while The Empress Theatre in Prahran was purchased in 1969. This time work had not commenced before a fire in one of the tenants’ premises broke out in June 1971. A quick sale followed and later that year the company, under General Manager John Cargher, purchased the Victory Theatre in St Kilda. The Victory was a 2550 seat cinema built in 1921 which was scheduled for sale by Hoyts. The most common expectation was that it would be demolished and a shopping centre built on the site. However, Hoyts elected to sell the building to The National Theatre Movement for conversion to studios and a new live theatre venue. The three performing arts schools moved in to the converted stalls in 1972 and the theatre—using the dress circle as auditorium and the addition of a fly tower—opened in 1974.

Surprisingly there was one last attempt at re-establishing a professional opera company. In 1970 the Arts Council approached John Cargher about returning to professional production rather than just arts training. Joan Harris had just created the three year Acting Course in the Drama School and expanded the classes for children in drama, while the Ballet School had large numbers of enrolments. The Opera School was also doing well with its productions at The Union Theatre. Financially the company seemed secure and plans were well in hand to convert The Empress Theatre in Chapel Street. Against this background The Melbourne Opera Company (not related to the current company) came into being. Its primary aim was to provide employment for Victorian opera singers and theatre professionals.  

So, in 1971 at The Princess Theatre the National made one last attempt at reclaiming its past glories. After a concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl (for Moomba) the new company opened with an odd double bill directed by Brian Crossley. The Secret of Susanna was an opera about a secret smoker while Help, Help, the Globolinks! was a new children’s opera by Menotti adding to an already long list of Menotti premieres in Australia. This was followed by The Merry Wives of Windsor and Cosi fan tutte. The season lost a great deal of money and put an end to professional productions by the National. A quote found by historian Frank Van Straten AM from The Age (Felix Werder) is strangely familiar to Melbourne fifty years later:

There are at present more than half a dozen opera companies in Melbourne, but not one really adequate opera school. Opera in Melbourne is like the Mexican army, in that it has too many would-be generals who form break-away armies, ill-equipped and bent on fighting parish-pump skirmishes.

Sound familiar?

Following the death of Jean Alexander in 1972 the Australian Prima Ballerina Marilyn Jones took over the Ballet School which gave it new standing in the dance world. The school more than doubled when Kathleen Gorham’s Ballet Academy merged with it in January 1975, with Miss Gorham becoming Associate Director and Sir Robert Helpmann becoming patron. Eventually (1978) Miss Jones became Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet and was replaced by Gailene Stock until 1985—eventually Miss Stock became Director of The Australian Ballet School and then The Royal Ballet School. With Marilyn Rowe as Associate Director (1983) her husband Gary Norman joined the National. John Cargher used Mr Norman’s recent international exposure in Spartacus and other male roles to promote ballet as ‘A Career for Men’—it was a huge success and suddenly The National Theatre was on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald!!

With the death of the founder Gertrude Johnson in 1973 the company was not in the best of positions. Newly appointed John Cargher as CEO, Joan Harris as Director of Drama and eventually Marilyn Jones as Director of Ballet—together with Peter Rorke in The Opera School—needed time to revitalise the moribund company. The fire in 1971 and the task of converting The Victory Theatre into a useful live theatre both for the company and Melbourne was ahead of them. No wonder that Miss Johnson’s Will lincluded a provision covering the collapse of the company and the fate of her estate. As history now reveals the company was revived and continues to re-invent itself. As Associate Director of the Ballet School Joanne Adderley introduced accreditation and an academic discipline to the Ballet School which now offers an Advanced Diploma and accepts international students. After the retirement of Joan Harris in 1997 this direction was also followed by the Drama School under Babs McMillan and Ken Boucher. In 1995 I was appointed as CEO and advances in training for both schools as well as building modifications for the 21st century were undertaken—not the least of which was handicapped access in the auditorium and heritage listing of the building in 2006. The size and scale of the Annual Ballet School performances under Miss Beverly Jane Fry from 1997 grew as the standards increased and graduates gained international careers.

Today this company continues in the heritage National Theatre in St Kilda, operating an essential mid-sized auditorium for Melbourne (783 seats) as well as two essential arts training schools. The building has celebrated its 100th birthday in 2021 and the company that has been based there since 1971 will do the same in 2035.



The Author

Robert Taylor is a NIDA graduate who has been Technical Director of The Australian Nouveau Theatre, Production Manager for the Playbox Theatre and Malthouse, Administrator for both Playbox and Malthouse and General Manager of The National Theatre for 19 years. He is indebted to Frank Van Straten’s research and knowledge for the basis of this article.


John Cargher, Luck was My Lady, 1996

John Ritchie (general editor), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 14, 1940–80

Frank Van Straten, National Treasure, 1994

National Theatre advertising brochure, 1996

National Theatre Conservation Plan, 2013

Archives of The National Theatre held at the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne


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