An energetic and eccentric look at the highs and lows of Australian showbiz


THEATER

An unforgivable brief history of Australian theater

La Mama until February 20 (live broadcast February 18)

A spirited jaunt through Australian theater history proves a fitting entry for the first season at La Mama’s rebuilt headquarters in Carlton.

The newly rebuilt La Mama Theater in Carlton.
Credit:Scott McNaughton

The building itself has a historic past. In past lives it was a shoe factory, and more specifically a workshop for silk underwear. In 1967, inspired by the New York experimental theater of the same name, Betty Burstall transformed it into an Australian new wave incubator, led by playwrights such as Jack Hibberd and David Williamson.

Their confidence and determination to forge a distinctly Australian style of theater had more obscure precursors, and as Robert Reid’s lightning lecture shows, even La Mama’s most recent work – it was destroyed by fire in 2018 – are hardly without precedent. Fire was the sworn enemy of many colonial-era theatres, beginning with Australia’s first commercial theatre, Sydney’s Theater Royal, opened by Barnett Levey in 1833.

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Reid delivers an energetic and sometimes eccentric insight into Australian performance history.

It is chronological and divided into five difficult eras: pre-invasion Aboriginal performance, convict theatre, the actor-manager model of the 19th century, the large commercial companies like JC Williamson’s that dominated the first half of the 20th century and, after the founding of the Elizabethan Theater Trust and its successor, the Australia Council – the age of government-funded theatre.

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