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Defining moments: the Nimrod story

Donald Pulford

Donald Pulford teaches at Curtin University WA and has a PhD in Contemporary Australian Theatre

Julian Meyrick, See How It Runs Julian Meyrick, See How It Runs
We have 2 companies to thank for giving Australian theatre an Australian accent, the Australian Performing Group (APG), or Pram Factory, in Melbourne and the Nimrod in Sydney. Together, they comprised the ‘New Wave’ of Australian theatre. Though both groups began early in the 70s, they are products of the 60s and share that decade’s concerns for uniting art and life and for pushing the boundaries of what could be said by challenging censorship. The brash and joyous vulgarity for which they are remembered was part of an attempt to define a distinctly Australian performing style.

These companies provided a nursery for many important Australian writers and performers. About 90% of the plays in the early Nimrod and the APG seasons were Australian. David Williamson, Jack Hibberd, John Romeril, Alex Buzo, Alma De Groen, Peter Kenna, Stephen Sewell and Louis Nowra are among the writers whose early careers were encouraged by those companies.

Despite their cultural importance, no substantial history of the APG has been published and only one exists for the Nimrod, Julian Meyrick’s See How It Runs (Currency Press, Sydney, 2002).

The Nimrod and the APG were founded by a generation of clever young guns in conscious opposition to the mainstream and Meyrick begins his history by examining the division between the generations and in their theatrical and wider cultural loyalties. As he tells it, there was an older Anglophile generation and a younger generation more influenced by nationalism and US-influenced youth culture. But, while he defines the lines very clearly, Meyrick is rightly suspicious of too neat a division and discovers blurred areas and crossovers. For instance, the popularity of new wave writers led to their being picked up by mainstream companies and many in the new wave happily accepted government subsidies.

Nimrod grew from Sydney University connections, principally between Ken Horler and John Bell and the availability of a cheap space, an old stable in Nimrod Street, Kings Cross, its first home. Later, the company moved to the old Cerebos salt factory in Surry Hills. (‘See How It Runs’ was the Cerebos motto.) Much larger than the Kings Cross premises, the new space afforded more performing areas, a main theatre, Upstairs, and a smaller space, Downstairs, as well as a foyer. The building is now the Belvoir Street Theatre. Finally, and disastrously, there was the move to the theatre complex at Sydney University, the Seymour Centre, in a misconcieved attempt to attract larger audiences.

Meyrick examines 3 productions to evoke the theatrical and wider cultural milieu at the birth of the Nimrod, Oedipus Rex, Hair and The Legend of King O’Malley. Allegedly epitomising the staid and backward-looking mainstream offerings of the time is the Old Tote’s pompous and ponderous production of Oedipus Rex, directed by the imported English high priest of high art, Sir Tyrone Guthrie. In the opposite corner was another import that demonstrated how theatre could replicate ‘life’ in its style as well as by what it represents. Hair had expressiveness, relevance and, seemingly, spontaneity. Michael Boddy, Bob Ellis and their collaborators took those ingredients and gave it a local, nationalist spin with the Old Tote’s homegrown The Legend of King O’Malley, the brashly confident foundation production of the Australian new wave. Audiences and critics greeted it enthusiastically. Its ‘rough’ staging, loosely structured narrative and presentational acting set the production style most associated with the Nimrod. Though there were darker offerings from directors such as Rex Cramphorn and Jim Sharman and interpretations of serious plays by Shepard, Bentley, Berkhoff and so on, the Nimrod keynote was fun. This is especially true of the 1970s’ productions, the decade bookended by Biggles and a rumbustious treatment of Goldoni’s The Venetian Twins.

Personality is obviously important to a theatre history and especially important to the Nimrod in the early years. In the absence of a guiding manifesto or obligations to subscribers and government agencies, programming was an ad hoc arrangement determined by the enthusiasms and availability of directors and performers. The outcome was eclecticism. Meyrick observes something like a 3-faceted aspect to the early Nimrod seasons at its Kings Cross home, new wave plays in ‘popular’ or realistic interpretations, revisionary interpretations of the classics and productions drawn from the international avant-garde. Under the loosened constraints of censorship, there seems to have been a preoccupation with sex running through the repertoire and a tendency towards breezy good feeling. With the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972 and a partially concomitant nationalism, “Nimrod was ready to credit itself with something like the national equivalent of the Midas touch: everything it touched turned Australian.”

A successful combination of government subsidy and business sponsorship, including Rupert Murdoch’s, created sufficient funds for the company to move to bigger premises in Surry Hills. At this stage, there were 3 artistic directors, John Bell, Ken Horler and Richard Wherrett. Lillian Horler served as general manager until her resignation in 1976. Meyrick concludes at the end of a revealing description of the artistic leadership, “Wherrett needed Horler’s spark and Bell’s egotism as much as they needed his craft and diffidence.”

The late 70s and early 80s were not a happy time for the Nimrod. When the Old Tote collapsed in 1978, the Nimrod tried to become the state theatre company for NSW. Instead, the Sydney Theatre Company was created. There was an uncomfortable turnover of artistic directors and general managers, especially the rancorous departure of a founding figure, Ken Horler, at the end of 1979. Perhaps fun was under threat more generally too. In June, 1979, Luna Park was badly damaged in a fire that killed 5 boys.

David Williamson’s Celluloid Heroes opened the Nimrod’s second decade and in its self-absorption and inability to sustain a narrative drive Meyrick suggests a reflection and prognostication of the Nimrod’s troubles. One review of it was headed, “The Fun Just Petered Out” and the play went on to die a lingering death at the box office in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

Though Nimrod fun survived in the small-scale shows Downstairs and in the foyer, things were definitely turning dark Upstairs. According to Meyrick’s analysis of the first 3 years of the 1980s, all the plays staged Upstairs, whatever their genre, were concerned with serious aspects of “conflict, breakdown and violence.” He also notes greater sexual modesty and cleaned up language. Pointing out the middle age of the major participants and their audiences, he observes, “Where once they may have sided with embattled, feisty, put-upon youth, they now reserved residual sympathy for guilty, implicated, anxious maturity.”

Meyrick’s story of the bumpy slide of Nimrod towards its folding in the mid ‘80s fuses trading deficits, distrust between management and staff, factionalism, staff control and then board control, rescues from bankruptcy and the disastrous move to the Seymour Centre. Meyrick handles the complexities in the painful dénouement of the Nimrod’s history as well as he depicts the company’s rise to triumph. Throughout, he effectively teases out the many strands that knot around the Nimrod without losing a sense that the intricacies are essential to the telling. The narrative is also well served by photographs, tables and chronologies.

See How It Runs is a disciplined, thorough and canny history, the outcome of assiduous work toward a well-deserved PhD and a very useful foundational treatment of the Nimrod. Now that that has been achieved, a lush and juicy, even gossipy, account would be nice. I hope someone is aiming at that by next Christmas.

Julian Meyrick, See How It Runs, Nimrod and the New Wave, Currency Press, Sydney, 2002.

Donald Pulford teaches at Curtin University WA and has a PhD in Contemporary Australian Theatre

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 34

© Donald Pulford; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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