Mary Stuart at the Ensemble

“Does she get her gear off?” asked my friend, Sx, who for many years supplemented his earnings as a solicitor with a gig as a barman at the Ensemble Theatre, when I rang him and told him I was going there to see Greta Scacchi as Elizabeth in Schiller’s Mary Stuart. “She’s famous for it. She’s always getting her gear off. You should call out and demand it.”

I didn’t, and she didn’t. Indeed, it would have been rather difficult for her to do so, as she had quite an elaborate outfit which Kevin Jackson has speculated must have blown nearly all the costume budget for the production.

I think it is quite possible that Mr Jackson is the same Kevin Jackson who was a tutor when I attended a summer school put on in 1974 at the then NIDA by the Australian Theatre for Young People. If so, he looks a bit older now, as of course do I.

I’m prompted to such reminiscence because it is at a another theatre-education function presented by Hayes Gordon at the Ensemble in 1972 that I remember first meeting Neil Armfield and Alan John, then both at Homebush Boys High. This is just about the sum of my claim to theatrical fame, even vicariously, apart from my season in Barber of Seville. Some years later, Neil Armfield wrote me out of a minor part in Bartholomew Fair at the University of Sydney when I didn’t turn up to enough rehearsals. I couldn’t see why I had to do all those warm-up exercises when I only had about 5 lines, and there were other distractions: my commitment to the craft was not strong enough.

I thought of this when standing outside the theatre prior to the performance. Kirribilli has moved up a bit in the world since then. It is a most enchanting spot.

But I digress.

Mr Jackson thought the production a travesty. Not having seen it before, and so with less to judge it by, I wouldn’t be quite so hard on it. Most of his criticisms are accurate, though I thought some of the supporting characters, and in particular Patrick Dickson, as Leicester, were better than he allowed. He does say that he only saw a preview.

In fact, I wasn’t so sure about Greta Scacchi as Elizabeth. What was, I think, intended to depict a kind of superannuated girlish charm with which she flirtatiously ruled her court came across as more broadly comical than seemed quite right. I wonder if this was a result of it being very late in the run when, judging by the house, the success had not been overwhelming.

However, it was an opportunity to see a great work (albeit truncated though perhaps thankfully so) that I am glad I took.  We see more Schiller on the opera stage (I Masnadieri, Don Carlos and of course Maria Stuarda) than in the theatre in Sydney.

There were 9 actors (some characters in Schiller’s original are eliminated and others are doubled up) and an audience of, I guess, about 70-75. The maximum capacity of the theatre is only 110. How can the Ensemble do it? Obviously the production was on any view a loss leader. It also cannot have been easy to maintain the necessary high drama when more than just intermittently the booming bass rhythms and even some party screaming from the adjacent Sydney Flying Squadron intruded on the performance.

Actually, I was rather shocked by that. How can the Ensemble run a theatre with such noisy neighbours? Perhaps this was worse than usual – judging from the bar’s advertised opening hours, this may have been a seasonal exception. I found it totally unacceptable. Before I went to the Ensemble again (maybe in another 20 years; maybe sooner) I would for my own protection feel obliged to ring the Sydney Flying Squadron and ask them if they’ve got anything planned for the evening.

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