A curated look at the top 10 shows of the last 50 years at Queensland Theatre.
The name has gone through some changes, but the spirit remains the same. Alan Edwards founded the Queensland Theatre Company in 1970; it took the regal title of Royal Queensland Theatre Company in 1984; it dropped the "Royal” in 2001; and it dropped the “Company” in 2016. This Sunshine State institution has launched the careers of dozens of great writers, performers and theatre-makers over its 50 seasons of stories, and here are 10 of the most memorable productions, plucked from the Company’s archives...
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, 1972
One of the best-remembered productions from the Company's first decade was a show that was never even staged in Brisbane. In 1972, the musical comedy You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on American cartoonist Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, toured the state for an impressive 52 performances. The cast and crew journeyed 4940 miles, starting in Toowoomba, ending in Chinchilla and going as far north as Cairns, lugging their own expandable proscenium arch — the small cast and relatively simple staging made it perfect for a touring show. David Waters played Charlie, Carol Burns played Lucy, Grant Dodwell was Schroeder, and a 21-year-old “Geoff” Rush, clad in white from top to toe, took the role of canine philosopher Snoopy.
Queensland Theatre Company opened its 1975 season with a daring play that created its own swirl of publicity: Peter Shaffer’s Equus, a powerful psychological British work complete with an infamous three-minute nude scene.
Under Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s conservative reign, the idea of the state theatre company staging a scene with actors in the buff made most of Brisbane very nervous, but the controversy meant the city was buzzing too. Artistic Director Alan Edwards took the stage as the psychiatrist, in solidarity with the young duo who would appear naked, and for whom the threat of arrest was very real: David Waters and Gaye Poole. The Company soothed any jitters by agreeing to cover their legal fees. In the end, tact, diplomacy and cool heads prevailed. Despite a police presence at the show at the State Government Insurance Office (SGIO) Theatre in Turbot Street, there were no pickets, and more than 20,000 audience members saw Equus during its smash hit run. There was not a single complaint.
The Tempest, 1982
During the 1980s, the Company’s outdoor productions of Shakespearean crowd-pleasers were its biggest drawcards. In 1982, Artistic Director Alan Edwards directed a lavish season of The Tempest in Albert Park Amphitheatre — where the Roma St Parklands Amphitheatre now stands. The Queen and Prince Philip were in town that September to open the Commonwealth Games, and the Duke of Edinburgh attended the very grand royal gala opening night. Adelaide-born actor Keith Michell, well-known for his Shakespeare work in Britain, his turns on Broadway, and a BAFTA-winner for his television portrayal of King Henry VIII, starred as Prospero. Eight dancers from Queensland Ballet joined the cast, playing the spirits of the magical island.
Henry V, 1988
Of all the memorable performances by the great Bille Brown, those who saw him playing Henry V in 1984, again outdoors at Albert Park and again directed by Alan Edwards, say it was among his greatest. Designer James Ridewood came up with a truly spectacular vision for the set, which incorporated a functioning drawbridge on a raked stage festooned with flaming torches. The ear-splitting report from the firing cannons would have echoed impressively over the Roma Street rail yards each night. Also in the cast were Bryan Nason as Exeter, Sean Mee as Pistol and Eugene Gilfedder as the young Prince Dauphin.
Reportedly, on one windy night, the flaming torches set fire to a mattress offstage, which was ready to catch the falling Lieutenant Bardolph during his death scene. Thankfully, quick action by an eagle-eyed cast member and a stagehand with an extinguisher prevented this history from becoming a tragedy.
The Marriage of Figaro, 1998
Director Neil Armfield’s take on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1778 play The Marriage of Figaro — the basis for the Mozart opera — was one of the highlights of the Company’s third decade. Armfield’s epic, produced for the second Brisbane Festival, was also one of the first plays to grace the brand new Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) Playhouse.
It was a riot of lavish costumes, stacked with a roster of theatrical stars including Bille Brown, Geoffrey Rush, Robyn Nevin, Jennifer Flowers, Andrew Buchanan, Leah Purcell and Gerry Connolly, with musical accompaniment by up-and-coming young Brisbane ensemble Topology.
“We did the play around the time of the Monica Lewinsky affair,” Armfield told the West Australian years later, “so the whole idea of Count Almaviva claiming droit de seigneur — of this handsome, charismatic count being able to just take his pick of those women within his household for sexual favours — felt remarkably prophetic.”
The Sunshine Club, 1999
The Company closed out the decade in November and December of 1999 with a completely homegrown production. Commissioned by Queensland Theatre Company itself, musical The Sunshine Club was set in post-World War II Brisbane, with music and lyrics by Brisbane-born playwright Wesley Enoch — later to become Artistic Director — and music by North Queensland-born composer John Rodgers.
It opened at the Playhouse, QPAC after a short run in Cairns’ Civic Theatre. Prominently featuring First Nations actors, it was the big acting break for The Sapphires director Wayne Blair, and the cast included Ursula Yovich, David Page, Christen O’Leary, Elaine Crombie, Tessa Rose and Roxanne McDonald. The Sunshine Club tells the story of an Aboriginal soldier returned from the war who starts a club where black and white people can meet, mingle and dance.
One of the early productions in this decade was truly an epic theatrical blockbuster. “There will be one 45-minute meal break and one 20-minute interval,” the program cautioned of the five-hour-long marathon adaptation of Tim Winton’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Cloudstreet, by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo.
Opening in the Playhouse in July 2001 and directed by Neil Armfield, it was actually a co-production of Sydney’s Company B Belvoir and Perth’s Black Swan Theatre, co-presented by QTC and QPAC. It follows the rising and falling fortunes of two cohabiting families, the Pickles and the Lambs, and starred Roy Billing and Kris McQuade as the dissolute Pickles and John Gaden and Gillian Jones as the clean-living, devout Lambs. Reportedly, part of the push to drum up publicity for the play was a plane writing “Cloudstreet” in the clear blue winter skies of Brisbane.
The Importance of Being Earnest, 2008
Oscar Wilde’s most popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest, also proved the most popular of the Company’s 2008 Season, packing in almost 14,500 audience members during its 21-show run at the Playhouse, QPAC.
Artistic Director Michael Gow’s production of the beloved crowd-pleaser embraced its razor-sharp wit and sophisticated charm, with costumes as outrageous as they were stylish, and a sumptuous set designed by Robert Kemp. Charismatic actor-turned-Redland City Councillor Paul Bishop played the rakish and irreverent bachelor Algernon Moncrieff to critical acclaim, with stalwart Bryan Probets as the foppish Jack Worthing, then-emerging artist Tim Dashwood as butlers Merriman and Lane, Georgina Symes as Gwendoline Fairfax and Jane Harders as her aunt, Lady Bracknell.
Reviewing for the ABC, Nigel Munro-Wallis wrote: “In these uncertain and belt-tightening times this production might be just what is needed to bring an injection of humour to a tired and nervous world.” 12 years on, that line is impressively still relevant to our own trying times.
At the height of the popularity of television saga Game of Thrones, Queensland Theatre Company’s own dark, grim and bloody tale of royalty, murder, war and blood came to the Playhouse, QPAC stage. The State Government's $3 million Super Star Fund allowed the Company to engage British theatre luminary Michael Attenborough to direct an eerie, atmospheric and riveting production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in association with The Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe.
The flagship of the 2014 season starred Jason Klarwein as the ambitious Scottish lord and Veronica Neave as his conniving wife. Set designer Simone Romaniuk, lighting guru David Walters and composer Phil Slade were at the peak of their powers, conjuring a wild, spooky, supernatural forest full of sound and fury that remains one of the Company’s finest sets. The supporting cast was a Who’s Who of Brisbane’s finest actors — any one of whom could have carried a production on their own – including Andrew Buchanan, Lucas Stibbard, Thomas Larkin, Eugene Gilfedder, Lauren Jackson, Tim Dashwood, Steven Rooke and Tama Matheson.
Ladies in Black, 2015
The first season of new Australian musical Ladies in Black in 2015 was a roaring success, but the 2017 return season of the Helpmann Award-winning phenomenon nearly tore the roof off the Playhouse, QPAC. To date, the remount remains the most-seen Queensland Theatre show, with 15,449 enraptured audience members witnessing it throughout the run.
With music and lyrics by Split Enz and Crowded House alum Tim Finn and book by screenwriter Carolyn Burns, this adaptation of Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel follows the journey of bookish young Christmas temp Lisa into the world of a ritzy Sydney department store in modern Australia’s adolescence, the 1950s. With more than 20 original songs by Finn, and stunning couture costuming befitting the cocktail frocks department of Goode’s, it remains an audience favourite, with a cast led by young Queensland Conservatorium grad Sarah Morrison, and the hilarious Carita Farrer Spencer.
“Ladies in Black captures the future of the QTC and is a shining example of what we will be doing in years to come,” said Artistic Director Sam Strong.