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The Legend of King O’Malley

Photo by Afshar Hodar

Don’t Look Away with AAI and Seymour Centre present, THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY, by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 26 Nov-13 Dec.

THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY, was written by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, in 1970. This production comes from a Melbourne based company, Don’t Look Away, that last year presented ROOTED, by Alex Buzo, both directed by Phil Rouse.

The play was written for NIDA/Jane St.

A synthesis from the history of NIDA, by John Clark: Jane St was an innovation set up by Robert Quentin (Professor), who had founded, with others, the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), in 1959, and then the professional theatre company known as The Old Tote Theatre Company, in 1963, both, on the campus of the New South Wales University. In the mid-sixties, Mr Quentin observed:

In Australia only a few plays from overseas are seen, and the long process of try-out adjustment and improvement by which their excellence was obtained is readily forgotten. Australian writers are often damned because they do not achieve in one step what overseas writers have accomplished in many. We must have a theatre whose aim is the development of work in progress, not immediate exploitation.”[1]

He found a tiny chapel (church), and with a small grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation, up in a Jane St, near the horse racing sale yards on Barker St, Randwick (I think the building, now a private residence, still exists). He had it hastily painted, white, and with a seating capacity of 80, of old cinema seats, opened in July, 1966, with the Tony Morphett play, I’VE COME ABOUT THE ASSASSINATION. The plays were, generally, new Australian works performed by young NIDA graduates, members of the Advanced Course. John Clark writes:

The idea was to have a theatre where new Australian plays could be tried out at minimum cost. If they were poorly received, no harm was done; if successful they could be transferred to the Old Tote or to a commercial venue.[1]

In his account of this time, John Clark – an Australian theatre visionary and practitioner – on becoming Director of NIDA in 1969, (while Robin Lovejoy took the helm Of The Old Tote Theatre Company), with Elizabeth Butcher, describes how he…reactivated Jane Street and the annual seasons of new Australian plays became an important part of the theatrical calendar until the owners sold the building in 1981 (between 1966 and 1981, some 28 Australian plays were produced). … In 1970 John Clark (of Tasmanian origin) read a biography of the legendary Australian politician, King O’Malley. He suggested to Michael Boddy (then teaching History of Theatre at NIDA) and John Bell (who had just recently returned to Australia, from the Royal Shakespeare Company, in the UK, and appointed Head of Acting, at NIDA, by John Clark), that there might be a play in O’Malley’s story. Bob Ellis came in as a writer, and the play was hastily written (I remember several joke books, scattered around the rehearsal theatre space, which were being plundered for some of the act two parliamentary material) and rehearsed over two weeks. It opened at the Jane St Theatre on 11 June 1970, and moved to the Old Tote’s Parade Theatre, at the end of their main season (where your’s truly was dragooned, with fellow first year NIDA actors, as part of a marching troupe in a red one-piece costumed life-savers swim suit, with red and yellow striped cap, carrying a beach safety reel, across the back of the stage, in an expanded act one finale) and toured Australia for over a year (we, thankfully, didn’t!)

The original company of actors were: William Yang, Rex Cramphorn, Nick Lathouris, Terry O’Brien, John Paramour, Robyn Nevin, David Cameron, Kate Fitzpatrick and Gillian Jones. John Bell Directed and Janet Dawson (Michael Boddy’s, wife) with Sue Lloyd, Designed.The choreography by Keith Bain. It was as a result of this production that John Bell and Ken Horler founded the NImrod Theatre, in an old stables in Nimrod St, Kings Cross (now the home of the Griffin Theatre Co), and opened on December 2nd, 1970, with a show called, BIGGLES. The iconoclastic early work of Nimrod was greatly influenced by the O’Malley experience, and, in another artistic direction, several of this acting company, led by Rex Cramphorn, founded the Performance Syndicate, that explored, re-thought, the classic repertoire. THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY, original production cohort is legendary for more than itself. It became the spring-source and energy for new Australian playwriting, and as an approach to the theatre craft of putting on a play, that became uniquely Australian. This ‘revolution’ in the performing arts, came on the cusp of great political change, with the election of Gough Whitlam,  in 1971, which was to be a further game changing power to the ARTS.

The short development time of the original production was compensated by the talent and enthusiasms of the original artists. The production was conceived as a rough and ready, “shambling, rollicking entertainment, a fantasia on the exotic life of the Federal politician King O’Malley”. [2] It is incredible to contemplate the ‘wealth’ of the talents involved in that O’MALLEY when one adds the memory of the performance preamble: Greeting the audience in the winter June evenings, were burning fires in ten-gallon metal barrels, and a group of young second year NIDA actors, costumed as hocus, (very feral) side show performers at a ‘spiritual’ tent gathering: a snake charmer with an actual python snake around her shoulders; a half-man/half woman; seedy clowns and a sexy, meet and greet MC. Some of the student actors being the likes of Pamela Stephenson, Vivienne Garrett, Wendy Hughes, John Hargreaves – who all became leaders in the performing arts, in the ,then, not to distant future.

So, for some of us, then, gathering, the other night, at the Seymour Centre, this play had that ‘Golden Era’ memory haze about it (true or otherwise) and was full of anticipatory anxiety as to how that ‘flimsy’ but influential, important, work was going to stand up. John Paramour, the original O”Malley was there, as was Bob Ellis, one of the writers. Lots of yarn-telling of the experience of this seminal work’s debut was going on – and maybe , you would have had to have been up at Jane St, or down at the old Parade Theatre, in 1970, to appreciate the excitement of, and, about it. In 1970, it, confidently was, partly, that the possibility, of the dream of Louis Esson’s National Theatre, an Australian Theatre, was at last, being born. (And that is not forgetting the influence of La Mama, in Carlton, Melbourne, as well.)

In the hush of the dingy Reginald foyer, being shared with another event in the room next door, we were let into the theatre, and on a stage with a painted striped tent backdrop (Designers, Daniel Harvey and Zoe Rouse), we were overwhelmed by a group of gospel singers in white shiny dress singing out, beating out, with a high octane energy, song, accompanied by an accomplished piano player, Tom Pitts,  There was mic-amplified sound and it was overwhelming (Sound Design, Simon Moy), a little shattering. What was once, (ah, Golden era), a vaudevillian, music hall, burlesque rendition of a grubby spiritual tent meeting somewhere in the boon-docks of the US of A, at the turn of the last century (see, the evangelical tent meeting in the TV series, TRUE DETECTIVE, to get an image), was now a kind of glitzy American Broadway Musical Theatre piece in action (Sondheim’s ASSASSINS, sprang to mind). It is a generational interpretation, of course, and Mr Pitts, has composed a whole new score (the original musical interludes, were mostly acappella, of traditional tunes e.g. Shall We Gather at the River etc, with tambourines), and it was a bit like watching the glitzy choices made by, Rob Marshall, in 2002 , for the film CHICAGO: a little more than over the top of the reality of the circumstances of the truths – either, the real life ones, or the original theatre production ones.

The energy of the performers, the slickness of this production: music, singing, choreography, acting. costume and setting, all good in themselves, was dominated by an overwhelming earnestness of tone, and lacked what I think is essential to O’MALLEY, irony. The ironic eye view, through the Australian ‘lens’ perspective, on the religious hokum, of O’Malley or, O’MALLEY, and that of his American ‘brothers and sitters’, plus the almost unbelievable events of his Act One life adventures in getting to Australia, was absent from this company’s work. It was told with a wink-wink melodramatic flourish but not with the trademark Aussie tongue-in-cheek. Very, very Earnest, was it, all. The speed, and the Sound Designed Noise, of the production in that first half drowned out any real possibility of, audience-wise, getting on board, or even really comprehending what was going on. At the interval, the old guys and gals of yesterday-yore, were curiously asking, how much of the text had been ‘tinkered’ with, as they couldn’t recognise the play that they, admittedly, distantly remembered – not much, if any (except the songs), at all.  New comers to it were more than a little bewildered at what they were watching and were asking why THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY held such an important place in Australian Theatre history.

The second act was better (still noisy – hey, guys, its a small venue!) The writing and the satire is more comprehensible in the playing – the mirror image of the O’Malley Federal Parliament behaviour for our present chaotic experience of the last five or six years in Canberra, could not be sharper. The issue of the personal conscience vote and the danger of exercising it in a ‘party’ dominated institution could not be more prophetic, in the demonstrated consequences incurred by King O’Malley, for our present independent politicians, and the ‘party’-identities trapped. Still topical, then.

The company is simply listed in the program without role appellation and is: Oliver Coleman, James Cook, Brianagh Curran, Alex Duncan, Matt Hickey, Andrew Iles, Tara Rankine, Jess Tanner. All are enthusiastic and work very, very earnestly. with lots of energy perspiration going on.

Unfortunately, the legend of THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY, and the honour of its place in the canonical history of Australian theatre, will not be explicated, for any who catch this production. Context, and the research to place it in a contextually meaningful manner for contemporary times, needs more contemplation, and, maybe, less physically committed effort- the laid-back energy of the Aussie larrikin of “she’ll be right, mate” might be a helpful one to consider, as a contrasting tempo.

Question. “Is this play a musical, or, a play with music?”


  1. John Clark, 2003, “NIDA”, University of New South Wales
  2. John West, 1978, “Theatre in Australia”, Cassell

Recommended reading:

  1. Philip Parsons (ed.), 1995, “Companion to Theatre in Australia”, Currency Press.
  2. Richard Wherrett, 2000, “The Floor of Heaven”, Sceptre.