May 31, 2011
NO MATTER how far Australia’s Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush has roamed, he has always called Belvoir Street Theatre home.
And so it was last night when the co-star of The King’s Speech joined his friend and colleague Neil Armfield to launch the book 25 Belvoir Street, named after the unprepossessing address in Surry Hills of one of Australia’s most stoic, magical and liberating theatre companies.
Belvoir celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, at which time Armfield, its long-time artistic director, made his exit by revisiting one of its great successes of 1989, The Diary of a Madman. Rush’s film career owes much to his resourceful stage adventures in the modest brick theatre’s corner space that Armfield has called “the spine of an open book”.
Edited by the designer Robert Cousins, 25 Belvoir Street combines an impressive pictorial survey of numerous productions with essays about its precarious history, rough-and-ready rehearsal spaces, and a galvanising artistic vision that has sustained the company in the best and worst of times.
“In the winter of 1994, after a mercurial decade, Belvoir’s Company B teetered on the edge of insolvency,” Cousins says. “While Neil Armfield was rehearsing Hamlet in a cold, drafty church at the bottom of Darlinghurst, the staff at Belvoir agreed to go without pay to keep the doors of the theatre open . . . It seemed that Company B was always just one show away from financial ruin. For 10 years success and failure had chased each other’s tails.”
Today’s re-branded company headed by the designer Ralph Myers is on a secure footing but staff and artists take nothing for granted.
Armfield’s final season reached an audience of 135,000 and posted a modest surplus of $64,000. The program included Tommy Murphy’s Gwen in Purgatory, Benedict Andrew’s version of Measure for Measure and a revival and tour of The Sapphires, featuring Casey Donovan.
The general manager, Brenna Hobson, said sponsorship and philanthropy had generated 17 per cent of total income last year. Student participation in workshops had increased three-fold since 2009.
Myers, the director Rhoda Roberts, the critic James Waites and the composer Alan John are among the book’s contributors who shed light on a pioneering, politically attuned, non-commercial entity that produced the landmark Cloudstreet, nurtured Australian actors, writers and designers, and gave indigenous artists a voice.
The Herald journalist and author David Marr sums it up: “Sydney loves a winner. Somewhere along the way Belvoir passed from being a Surry Hills upstart to an institution of the town . . . Labor loves the place; the Liberals have endowed it generously. Neither side has come to distrust Belvoir enough to dismiss what it’s about. The work has been too good, too rich, too unexpected.”