Julian Meyrick on the Fate of Melbourne’s legendary Anthill Theatre

Melbourne’s Anthill Theatre, based in a hall in South Melbourne, burned brightly in the 1980s to the early 1990s — and its influence has long endured across Australia. The adaptation of classic, European plays is now routine among our theatre companies, (read our review of STC’s Three Sisters that opened on Friday), but Anthill productions of Moliere, Beckett and Brecht plays were “blazingly original, but also simple, direct and emotionally connected” writes theatre historian Julian Meyrick below.

“This was due to the actors who were in them – ones such as Julie Forsyth, Bruce Keller, Jacek Koman, Catherine McClements, Alex Menglet and many more – as well as Jean-Pierre himself, both a courageous experimenter and a theatrical traditionalist,” Meyrick writes for Daily Review in the introduction to an extracted chapter about Anthill from his new book Australian Theatre after the New Wave.

“Sometimes the only way forward is back. If we want to make the right choices in the future, we have to examine the wrong ones we have made in the past,” he writes of his research into what went wrong at Anthill.

***

The legendary philosopher R G Collingwood did not say, but ought to have said, that the job of a historian is a gigantic pain in the butt. Instead, he wrote, “nothing capable of being memorised is history”. Which means that writing history is, if not a science, then certainly a structured, methodical activity, and often an achingly slow process.

To be good, historical accounts need to exhaustively investigate their sources, to test their assumptions and generalisations against the empirical record. Some arguments have to pass the pub test. Historical ones have to pass the public librarian test.

Will those fernickety, detail-obsessed disciples of archangel Raziel – in Jewish lore, “the Keeper of Secrets” – accept your account as true, fair and complete? No? Destination: rubbish bin.

It has taken me ten years to write Australian Theatre after the New Wave, and when you live with anything for that long, you become aware of its faults. For a start, it is only about one small part of a large and complex sector that by the 1990s had effectively tripled in size from the 1970s.

Which stories to tell? Which stories reveal most about the big picture of Australian theatre? Which stories are in danger of being entirely lost unless the historian rescues them from the dank of the archive?

Anthill’s productions were extraordinary. I’ve seen shows slicker, sharper, weirder, more consciously “innovative”, more deliberately intellectual… but Anthill’s have no peer.

Anthill Theatre is one of three companies I discuss in my book and takes up over half of it. Why Anthill? First, because I knew it. That’s not an especially intellectual reason for choosing it, but it is important nevertheless. I dated my wife while she was interning for the company in 1987, making plaster clocks to be hurled to the ground by an actor’s imperious hand in a production of The Three Sisters.

I worked as Jean-Pierre Mignon’s assistant director in 1989. Jean-Pierre was Anthill’s Artistic Director, and was it my imagination or was there a subtle subtext in a young Englishman being bossed about by a brilliant Frenchman at the height of his creative powers?

In 1990, I moved to Melbourne and spent many evenings at the company’s Napier Street venue, the Temperance Hall, and later at the Gasworks Theatre, where it died in 1994-5.

Anthill’s productions were… extraordinary. I’ve seen shows that were slicker, sharper, weirder, more consciously “innovative”, more deliberately intellectual. But in a signal combination of verve, veracity and theatrical heart, Anthill’s have no peer in my own experience.

It produced not just good theatre, but theatre that meant something. The meaning was the point and the grace of its productions. Going to see its work was like visiting a friend.

In the 1980s, Anthill pioneered what has now become a staple feature of our theatre repertoire – the adaptation of classic, European plays. Its productions of Moliere, Beckett and Brecht plays were blazingly original, but also simple, direct and emotionally connected.

This was due to the actors who were in them – ones such as Julie Forsyth, Bruce Keller, Jacek Koman, Catherine McClements, Alex Menglet and many more – as well as Jean-Pierre himself, both a courageous experimenter and a theatrical traditionalist.

Anthill’s end, like its professional ascent, was swift. In 1989, at the height of its success, it seemed, it lost funding from both the federal and Victorian governments.

Many people remember those Anthill shows, but it’s also important to acknowledge the Australian work it did – an unsurpassed, surreal version of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, for example – and the local writers it worked with, like Richard Murphet, Helen Garner, Alex Miller, and Rod Poole.

When researching the book I was fortunate to have access to its Australia Council files – an act of great generosity on the part of the agency, who gave me unfettered access to all company documents.

Anthill’s end, like its professional ascent, was swift. In 1989, at the height of its success, it seemed, it lost funding from both the federal and Victorian governments. In 1991 this was restored but it never really recovered, and never found a viable business model to underpin its unruly creative work.

The irony is that so many things the company was doing – like overseas touring, or working with actors from non-English speaking backgrounds – came to be highly valued after its demise. Back then, Anthill’s values seemed idiosyncratic. Today they seem prescient.

Why did Anthill lose government support? Why, given its amazing track record in the 1980s, did it gutter out like a tea candle in the 1990s? Answering this question is not easy, and involves examining the policy envelope in which it operated.

When companies tank – and there have been many spectacular organisational expirations in Australian theatre history: JC Williamsons, the Old Tote Theatre, the State Theatre Company of Western Australia, Zootango (the list goes on) – it is the immediate causes that stand out. Dreadful plays. Dysfunctional leadership. Bad financial management.

The deeper, structural causes take some excavation.

In 1993, the Australia Council’s Major Organisations Board was established and officialised a split in the agency’s client base between a small group of large, triennially-funded companies on the one hand, and a large group of smaller, project-based ones on the other.

It was (and is) a fateful division. Theatres like Anthill – odd, middle-sized ones, with epic visions but modest budgets – got lost in the chasm that opened up between the two policy categories.

There are many reasons why Anthill failed. Some of them had to do with its own poor decisions. Others, however, had to do with the funding logic in which was enmeshed.

This story forms the background to the ones I tell about the three theatre companies in my book. It is the story of the relationship between Australian artists and the Australian state in the twenty years after the end of Gough Whitlam’s government in 1975.

Like many contemporary dramas, it’s a tale that doesn’t end well. If we want to understand the deadness government displays towards culture today, the inappropriate measures and assessment processes they inflict on it, the stupid, stupid instrumentalism that misses the whole point of culture, then we need to look at what happened to companies like Anthill.

Any historian will tell you this – but after writing my book I am even more convinced of it: sometimes the only way forward is back. If we want to make the right choices in the future, we have to examine the wrong ones we have made in the past.

The following is an extract from Julian Meyrick’s Australian Theatre After the New Wave: Policy, Subsidy and the Alternative Artist. Leiden, The Netherlands. Brill, 2017. 

Chapter 5: Australian Nouveau Theatre (ANT)

Operating from 1980 to 1994, Australian Nouveau Theatre was a company dedicated to the pursuit of both experimental and classic drama. The astringent critic James Waites, reviewing a Macbeth staged in a disused factory, called it “a vigorous, high profile company which [had] taken out considerable honours”, a modest description of a theatre that, like its artistic director Jean-Pierre Mignon, galvanised national opinion. On the face of it, ANT’s story is Mignon’s story: his struggle to establish an Australian company imbued with the values of Parisian theatre, especially Compagnie Marc Renaudin where he had worked for ten years; his attempts to distance ANT from the New Wave ascendant in the 1970s, in particular at the APG; above all, his desire to direct productions that would connect with theatre’s originary power without being in any way antiquarian. “Theatre was not invented ten years ago,” he explained on more than one occasion.

From northern France near the Belgian border, Mignon was every Australian’s idea of a certain kind of Frenchman: dark, tousled hair; sweeping, bear-like movements; thick accent; ever-present cigarette. In media situations he was open and relaxed, a hedonistic air suggesting food and drink as accompaniments to intimate exchange. Mignon – nicknames J.P., ‘the pig’, ‘fillet Mignon’ – was a passionate man in every respect, his enthusiasms and aversions European and outsize. Beneath his country-cook charm, however, lay other abilities. These came out in his eye for talent, his detailed understanding of play texts, and his positioning of ANT’s creative approach away from mere literary illustration. The last was crucial. Part of the job of the intellect in the theatre is to know the limits of intellect, to get out of the way of visual inspiration, emotional connection, and choreographic skill. There was thus no contradiction between Mignon saying he “did not even know what innovation means”, and the startling inventiveness of his productions that bore no relation to accepted staging practices. If the results appeared transgressive, behind them lay a mind that saw plays not as frameworks for personal concerns but as vehicles for truths; truths that could only be realised, paradoxically, by unbounded directorial interpretation.

Like other start-up theatres of the period, ANT went through successive phases of rapid growth that expressed itself in the number, type, and size of productions it chose to stage. The relationship between money and effort was never straightforward, however. It is only a theatre with no resources that can commit to eight-week rehearsals. The brio and skill which critics so admired was the result not only of the talents of ANT’s tight-knit creative core, but of the time they had to explore them. Its work was a striking synthesis of influences: Mignon’s commitment to textual research and physical training; the actors’ grounding in, and rebellion against, psychological realism; and the contributions of Katharine Sturak, translator and AntNews editor, Bruce Keller, actor and administrator, and Wendy Black, designer of important early shows, including ANT’s first Moliere.

Over time, it was time itself that disappeared. As touring increased, and as Mignon accepted work away from the company – the bone of contention with the Australia Council – non-financial resources grew limited. By the middle of the decade, ANT was struggling to find an optimum level of production. In 1985, there were three shows and one revival; in 1986, seven shows and two revivals; in 1987, three shows and two revivals; in 1988, two shows and two revivals. For Mignon, the logic of the program was a reflection of his commitment to individual works writ large: a ‘Moliere triptych’; a ‘Chekhov triptych’. For cultural agencies, watching the company’s per seat subsidy fluctuate as its demands for cash came thick and hard, the issue of ANT’s place in the world was more complicated. It was clear what the company did. But what was it for? How could it be regulated in a way that was consonant with government prescriptions for theatre in Australia? Indeed, in what sense was ANT Australian at all, given the skew of its plays, personnel, and rhetoric? Christine Kania, ANT’s first historian, admits “The commitment to Australianness was problematic, [though] the company was functioning in Australian society. It had a dialogue with Australian audiences and its work always referred to [that] society”.

FINAL xxEndgame 1991 photo Jeff Busby
Anthill’s 1991 production of ‘Endgame’. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Given the nationalist image of Australian theatre in the 1970s, ANT is not a company that might have been expected to prosper in the 1980s. Its repertoire included few Australian plays: only 12 out of more than 60. Its pyramid management structure contrasted with both the co-operative model of Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre and the collectivism of the APG. Its attitude to audience response was pugnacious to the point of being dismissive. Yet ANT thrived on its challenger status, reluctant to relinquish it however popular it got. If it was excoriated for its play choices and defiance of public expectations, this was a good thing, a defining characteristic of the company.

Yet how deep did such divisions really run? Mignon was a one-time member of the APG, reading unsolicited scripts mainly. He claimed ANT was set up in director-controlled opposition to its communal example but for the first two years the contrast was largely rhetorical. ANT’s leadership was permeable. Different directors worked there, and for a year the program’s helm was shared among three people. Lack of money from either box office or subsidy blurred the line between ANT shows and outside hires, making it a grab bag of experiments that, if they took aim against the realism of the mainstream, had little else in common. And while Australian plays were not numerous in the company’s repertoire, it nevertheless had dealings with a diverse range of local writers, Alex Miller, Paul Adkin, Richard Murphet, Helen Garner, and Rod Poole among them. If adaptors are counted, then Sturak, May-Britt Akerholt, and Ann Murch can be added to the list. Even the amount of Australian drama ANT produced depends on how the category is defined. Mignon’s version of Kids’ Stuff, for example, was nothing like the French original. It had a woman in the lead male role for a start, and was idiosyncratic in dramaturgy and staging. Was it a French play, a French play given an Australian adaptation, or a new play using French material? Where did text end and mise-en-scène begin? The national origins of plays aside, there are indications that ANT was as much in concert with, as reacting against, New Wave values.

Discussion of the company can be found in Radic (1991), Milne (2004) and McCallum (2009). The sources involved in this history, however, are ground level, and include ANT’s annual grant applications, Australia Council correspondence, financial statements and acquittal reports. These put flesh on stark chronological bones and point up the central aspect of ANT’s existence: the financial disarray that was never rectified. In trying to achieve its artistic goals, the company’s operation became distended and opaque. It went through a string of administrators, each of whom eventually threw up their hands and left, either ruefully or in dudgeon. For Mignon, the issue was clear: the company did not have enough money. Or rather it was not given enough money, and this motif – impecunious, brilliant artists on the one hand, obdurate, unfeeling bureaucrats on the other – accompanied the company’s growing profile like an off-key descant. Success, rather than improving the situation, made it worse, stretching shoestring budgets to breaking point, and further convincing Mignon the funding bodies had it in for him. Mutual suspicion reached a climax in ANT’s last years, after the disastrous move to Gasworks, and the realisation that a company that had made a significant contribution to Melbourne’s cultural scene was going to disappear.

And with ANT went its legacy, fading like a vapour trail. What remains is astonishingly little even by the amnesiac standards of Australian cultural history. It is as if the company cancelled itself out in a ravelling implosion that left only an art-shaped hole where once imaginative effort had been.

Thus beyond the usual questions of company history – why did ANT shoot so swiftly to national prominence? why did it lose funding when it was critically respected, artistically vibrant, and in the black? – lies one harder to answer: what is the meaning of ANT? In respect of the grand narrative of Australian theatre, were its efforts peripheral, subsidiary, or complementary? Or was it a chance event, one of the things that happen in culture, which, at the end of the day, is no more than a list of things that happen to happen? To put this in an edgier way, did ANT exhibit an animating idea to which it remained faithful, of which its stage work was the committed expression? If so, how did that idea relate to the New Wave theatre that came before it?

These artistic questions are bound up with a more political one: what happened in ANT’s dealings with the cultural agencies? Addressing the first type means answering the second, and shedding light on the cultural policies that shaped Australian theatre in the post-Whitlam era.

EXTRACTED FROM JULIAN MEYRICK’S AUSTRALIAN THEATRE AFTER THE NEW WAVE: POLICY, SUBSIDY AND THE ALTERNATIVE ARTIST. LEIDEN, THE NETHERLANDS. BRILL, 2017. 

Images by Jeff Busby. Main image: The Imaginary Invalid 1989 and Endgame 1991.

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4 responses to “Julian Meyrick on the Fate of Melbourne’s legendary Anthill Theatre

  1. Just such excellent (and I choose that word carefully…) theatre they were…an absolutely outstanding body of work….coming from the UK alternative theatre into the Melbourne scene at the end of the 80s they just seemed so….good…to me. But there was a cohort of middlebrow arts bureaucrats who just hated them with a viciousness that really surprised me at the time…I am used to that hate now.

    And of course the Arts Minister and his wife who complained (loudly) at the start of Mother Courage that there was …smoke…and….they “couldn’t see the stage”…..kinda exemplifies the state of Australian governments and any art that’s vaguely interesting….imho

    but…..hey ho…onward…

  2. as a founding member of Wal Cherry’s Emerald Hill Theatre in South Melbourne in 1962 ( a distant ancestor of Anthill) Prof. Meryrick’s account of A’s ideals & financial struggles hold a strong sense of deja vu.
    Well before there was any govt. funding, Australia Council, etc. for `innovative’ , non-mainstream theatre , Cherry’s actor’s studio & theatre, inspired by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble & Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, managed to present works by Moliere & Pinter, Albee & Osborne, Sophocles & Anouilh, in a former church we made into a fine theatre with a revolving stage – just down the road from Anthill. So when I attended Jean-Pierre Mignon’s terrific productions there, 3o years later, I felt like an old ghost!
    Despite the European ensemble ideal, due to our lack of resources Emerald Hill’s performances were at best mixed, but it was a good try, in the then very-untrendy suburb of South Melbourne – ` much too ahead of it’s time’, as the late Wal Cherry lamented.
    As was Anthill.
    Plus la Meme Chose.

  3. The animating idea of Anthill – and in my view the most important lesson it holds for Australian theatre – was that of a European-style ensemble company with a fluctuating but more or
    less consistent creative team (including a core ensemble of actors as well as designers, composer Sam Mallet and makeup artist Lloyd James) inspired by the unique vision of a single artistic director and (until the fateful move to the Gasworks) housed in a single venue with its own unique ambience. All these factors, typical of the European model, arguably gave Anthill a stronger sense of artistic identity than any other Australian theatre company, then or since.

  4. Important to revisit the achievements, significance and demise of Anthill. Long may they remain in the fading memories of those interested. However, despite acknowledging the increasing problems with funding, box-office receipts and the comings and goings of administrators, Prof Meyrick plays with an essential timeline: in the final years of its existence it was not, alas, in the black. It was in the deepest red. With funds ever diminishing from State and Federal agencies (still yet) Anthill had to be let go. Its value and achievements were never doubted. It was not well managed. Simple as that. I too was there in awe of what the ensemble had achieved and was striving to maintain. Bless ’em all.

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