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Thursday, 01 September 2022

‘Australia’s Stratford-on-Murray’: Swan Hill National Theatre and the Shakespeare Festivals

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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

References

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, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/23313279  (accessed 11 August 2022)

 

Read 174 times Last modified on Wednesday, 05 October 2022
Cheryl Threadgold

Dr Cheryl Threadgold OAM

Since 2005 Cheryl has been the honorary theatre writer/reviewer/review coordinator for the 'Melbourne Observer' newspaper, and presented the non-professional theatre report on 3AW for six and a half years. She convenes the Bayside U3A Writers Group,  and casts and directs the writers' radio plays for broadcast on 88.3 Southern FM.

Personal involvement in amateur theatre commenced in1958 in a play titled 'A Must for Dolly' (a sequel to 'Man and Superman' by George Bernard Shaw) written and directed by J. Beresford Fowler at the Arrow Theatre, Middle Park. 

After working in ABC Television behind the scenes for 29 years, more recent amateur theatrical activities include performing, directing, choreographing, writing full-length productions and short plays, publicity, adjudicating, committee and front-of-house.

A love of amateur theatre inspired Cheryl to undertake a PhD research project with Swinburne University of Technology to explore the history and culture of the theatrical arts sector in Victoria. Her self-published book In the Name of Theatre: the history, culture and voices of amateur theatre in Victoria is based on the award-winning thesis and won the 2020 Collaborative Victorian Community History Award.

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