Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Melbourne's Magnificent Maestro: Barry Humphries

Melbourne’s Magnificent Maestro: Barry Humphries

As noted both in my review of Barry Humphries & Friends: Back With A Vengeance and my synopsis of the "career" of Dame Edna, the 50 years of entertainment by Humphries is currently being roundly celebrated in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia.

In addition to his current run at The Arts Centre’s State Theatre in Melbourne, it’s worth noting that this incredibly brilliant and wickedly funny performer is also the patron of the theatre’s Performing Arts Collection, part of which I had an opportunity to view.

In The Arts Centre’s official publication, Cultural Collections, Humphries writes:

The Performing Arts Collection is a treasure trove of the Australian performing arts. Not some boring, dry museum, but a living growing entertainment for the whole family.

Beautifully preserved and maintained, among the splendid donations by Dame Nellie Melba’s family, Mr. Kenn Brodziak and The Australian Ballet, to name a few, is a collection of my own costumes, bejeweled spectacles, paintings, photographs, posters, programs and personal memorabilia that I had assumed lost, or “mislaid” by negligent producers. Dame Edna’s collection has now of course been rivaled by the donation of her cultural successor, Kylie Minogue.

The Performing Arts Collection has come into its own as a major cultural anthology. It holds many items: wonderful stage models, paintings and drawings by our finest stage and costume designers, puppets, unique posters and original works of art. These record the history of the Australian stage – which is unique in the world – and have been rescued from oblivion by dedicated curators with a passionate love for our theatrical heritage.

One visit to this amazing collection will convince you that it is a great asset to the
community, and indeed, to the world of Australian entertainment. I hope it surprises and amuses you as much as it did me when I first saw what a treasure house of material we has here in Melbourne. This collection deserves your donations of theatrical memorabilia as well as your patronage. That does not just mean your attendance at its ever-changing exhibitions, but your financial support as well.

If you care for Australian’s living theatre and its traditions, I urge you to please get involved with the cultural collections. Long may they flourish.

According to the same document, the Barry Humphries Collection encompasses “70 costumes, works of art, scripts and memorabilia donated to the Performing Arts Collection since 1981. The collection continues to grow through the generous patronage of Barry Humphries.”

Ironically, as recently as 1985, this great patron of the Australian arts was derided by Mr. Colin Hollis ALP of the Hansard House of Representatives, who said, “People such as Barry Humphries, in his character Les Patterson, from which he has made a lot of money by knocking Australia and the arts, have done great damage to the Australian arts.”

An outstanding, fascinating biography of Melbourne’s favorite son is included in the official program for his current theatrical production there:

Barry Humphries is not only a successful character actor in Europe and Australia, but one of Australia’s best-loved landscape painters. His pictures are in private and public collections, both in his homeland and abroad.

He was educated at the University of Melbourne where he studied law, philosophy and fine arts. It was at the University of Melbourne where he held his first Dada exhibition – exhibitions in anarchy and visual satire. These have become part of Australian folklore. After writing and performing songs and sketches in University revues, Humphries joined the newly formed Melbourne Theatre Company.

In 1955, he created Mrs. Norm Everage, a Melbourne housewife who has subsequently become internationally celebrated and has evolved into the hugely popular and universally adored Dame Edna. In Sydney, in the late 50s, Humphries joined the Phillip Street Revue Theatre, Australia’s first home for intimate revue and satirical comedy. After a long season in which he developed his newly invented characters, Humphries appeared as Estragon in Waiting For Godot. This production marked Australia’s first ever production of a Samuel Beckett play.

In 1959, he sailed to Venice. During the 60s in London, Barry Humphries appeared in numerous West End productions. Most notable were the musicals Oliver! and Maggie May by Lionel Bart, and stage/radio productions by his friend, Spike Milligan, in particular "The Bed Sitting Room." He also worked in productions with Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, and played Long John Silver at the Mermaid Theatre.

In 1967 he starred as Fagin in the Piccadilly Theatre’s revival of Oliver! (SOB: This is the current home to the West End revival of Guys And Dolls.) Phil Collins played the Artful Dodger in this production. Between West End engagements, he regularly returned to Australia with a new one-man offering, presenting a wide range of characters including Edna, whose popularity was fast developing.

In the early 1970s, with his friend, Bruce Beresford ("Breaker Morant," "Driving Miss Daisy"), Humphries brought to the cinema the character of Barry Mackenzie, a personage he had invented in the Sixties in a cult comic strip he wrote for Peter Cook’s satirical magazine Private Eye. By the mid-70s Humphries was not only playing character roles in British films, plays and television shows, but starring in his own one-man show at the Apollo Theatre in London (SOB: this was where I saw my very first Broadway show in 1979 in the West End version of Annie).

Housewife Superstar! Took London by storm, dominated by Dame Edna and
Les Patterson, and his favorite theatrical invention, the suburban ghost Alexander (Sandy) Stone. He has been presenting his own shows in the West End ever since, culminating in Edna, The Spectacle at the historic Theatre Royal Haymarket. In 1979, Humphries won the Society of West End Theatres Award for A Night With Dame Edna! at the Piccadilly Theatre.

Since then, he has collected innumerable honours for stage and television work, including the Rose d’Or de Montreux in 1991 for his television show, “A Night On Mount Edna,” and a Sir Peter Ustinov Endowment, for his life work as an entertainer, at the Banff Television Festival in 1997. In 2000, he won a Special Tony Award for his Broadway show and a Special Achievement Award from the Outer Critics’ Circle and his last Broadway offering Back With A Vengeance (2005) won a Tony Nomination.

Humphries has toured in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and in the Far and Middle East, and extensively in the United State (sic). He has recorded Dame Edna television specials for the BBC, London Weekend TV, NBC and Fox networks. Dr. Humphries is the author of innumerable novels, autobiographies, poetry and one-man plays.

His autobiography My Gorgeous Life won the J.R. Ackerley prize for biography in 1993, and he is the subject of two critical and biographical studies: The Real Barry Humphries by Peter Coleman, and Dame Edna Everage And The Rise Of Western Civilisation by John Lahr.

His second volume of autobiography My Life As Me won popular and critical acclaim in Australia and the UK.

He was given the popular Order of Australia in 1982 and was endowed with an Honorary Doctorate of Griffith University (Australia) in 1994 and a Doctorate of Law at his Alma Mater, Melbourne University in 2003.

He is married to Lizzie Spender, the daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender, and has two sons and two daughters.

Taking in Thursday evening’s performance in Melbourne was my sixth time seeing Dame Edna (including both Broadway shows, two times in Minneapolis and once in Cleveland), but was uniquely my first experience with the inimitable Barry Humphries and his other characters.

Once again, I was thrilled to be within spitting distance of this amazingly sharp performer in the first couple of rows. Not only was I able to catch another of the Great Dame’s gladiolas, but I found myself both relieved and mildly disappointed at the same time when not being singled out for Dame Edna’s trademark ridicule and bromides, although as in past performances, her gaze lingered uncomfortably upon my eyes for several seconds at a time.

In addition to being introduced to Humphries other far-ranging characters of the aforementioned Les Patterson and Sandy Stone, what made this a uniquely moving experience was being able to stand-up and cheer Melbourne’s magnificent maestro himself at the conclusion of his show as he celebrated his 50th year on the stage in his own hometown. This is a memory I won’t soon forget.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
This Dame's The Deal Down Under (December 24, 2006)
Barry Humphries & Friends: Back With A Vengeance! (The SOB Review) - Arts Centre, State Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (December 21, 2006)

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At 27 December, 2006, Anonymous Douglas McEwan said...

The autobiography of Barry Humphries that won the JR Ackerley Prize was titled "More Please". His book "My Gorgeous Life" was Dame Edna's autobiography. It is a wonderful book, but it did not win the JR Ackerley Prize for biography, for which is was not eligible, since it is a work of fiction. This is probably a mistake in the program, not your error. Thanks for sharing your visit to Ednafest, Merlbourne.

At 28 December, 2006, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


Thanks for the correction. You are indeed correct (more information on the JR Ackerley Prize and past winners may be found at http://www.englishpen.org/prizes/pastjrackerleyprizewinners/)

The information I included had been included in the show program.

Appreciate the heads-up!



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