In my mid 20s I worked for The Currency Press. It was my first real job, and it spoiled me forever. Our offices were frequently visited by luminaries from Australia and beyond. David Williamson ducked to get under the lintel; Jim McNeil and Peter Kenna duelled with anecdotes over afternoon tea; Alex Buzo described one of his leading ladies as having a face like the back of a bus; Richard Eyre (whose Stage Beauty I watched on TV last night) dropped by on a visit from the UK; Aileen Corpus chatted about developments in Aboriginal theatre; Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley moved in just up the road. I don’t remember if I actually met Rex Cramphorn, but his Performance Syndicate was one of the most exciting things happening in Sydney theatre at that time. I remember editing a short piece he wrote for a little newsletter that Currency used to produce, in which he imagined a production of Don’s Party in which the actors wore masks and high platform soles. More to the point, his productions made a deep impression on me – I still find myself humming snatches of song from Muriel, a play he directed about a young woman with developmental delay.
Tonight at Gleebooks Louis Nowra, another occasional visitor to our office back then, launched A Raffish Experiment, a collection of Cramphorn’s writings, edited by Ian Maxwell and published by Currency Press. I got there early, bought a copy and sat in a corner browsing it, sipping on a glass of water (the only non-alcoholic drink on offer) while the crowd gathered. I didn’t see anyone I knew to talk to, though there were a number faces familiar from stage, screen and the photographs in the book. I spent a lovely 20 minutes reading reviews of plays I saw more than 30 years ago. In 1970 Cramphorne (as he then spelled his name) described Hair as ‘the only doggedly good value in theatre here’, and ‘enjoyed the texts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Little Murders – though not the productions’. He describes the overture of a production of Reedy River as ‘a blackout in which the sonic hum of the air-conditioner contested for precedence with a medley of tunes hummed offstage’. Oh how one yearns for such a fearlessly opinionated reviewer these days.
As the speeches were about to begin, a tall silver-haired man sat next to me. we exchanged pleasantries, and then I recognised him and said, ‘Oh hello Arthur!’ It was the great Arthur Dignam who of course doesn’t know me from Adam. By the time we’d established that, the lights had dimmed and the launch was on.
Louis Nowra told charming tales of his collaborations with Cramphorn. Unlike almost everyone else in the theatre he didn’t pay much attention to opening nights – the show would come good eventually, and it didn’t really matter if that eventuality was three weeks into the season. (I must have been one lucky punter, as I have nothing but good memories of his shows, and looking at the list up the back of the book I can see that I did see quite a few.) Ian Maxwell read some excerpts from the second part of the book, which deals with Cramphorn’s own practice in the theatre and said he hopes it’s a book that will prove useful to anyone starting out on a career in the theatre – he wished he had been given a book like this when he was starting out to be a director: we can learn from Brecht and Artaud, and also from Rex Cramphorn.
Speaking as one whose role in the theatre is to put a bum on a seat, I do hope a lot of them on the supply side read the book, and are infected with its disdain for the dull. The launch was a muted celebration of exactly that infection.