BEGINNINGS (1964-1969)

It is 1964 and the times are a-changin’. It is the year of the Rolling Stones’ first LP and the year of Andy Warhol’s The American Supermarket. It is the year of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with the young Glenda Jackson. In America, Lyndon Johnson wins a resounding victory against Barry Goldwater despite the spectre of the Vietnam War. And in Sydney, Jim Sharman, aged nineteen, begins a two-year production course at the National Institute for the Dramatic Arts.

At this time, NIDA is still a relatively small institution, but it suits an ambitious, improvisational temperament like Sharman’s. Apart from directing in-house productions of Pirandello, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams and Brecht, and some work experience as a lackey with the Elizabethan Trust Opera, his time is well spent running after those of his elders who he feels he can learn from.

After graduating in 1966, Sharman launches a new company, the Group Theatre, staging Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking kitchen-sink drama A Taste of Honey at Sydney’s Cell Block Theatre. The season runs only four nights, but it gets noticed.

The high-spirited young cast is led by the nineteen-year-old Helen Morse (in the part Rita Tushington played in Tony Richardson’s film). Delaney’s rough, comic mother/daughter drama unfolds across a stage set like an abstract junkyard, all artfully displaced scrap iron sheets.

“It’s a play to do with adolescence,” Sharman later recalls, “and we were more or less going through some of the experiences of the play so it seemed to have some sort of emotional quality and perhaps visual distinction to it, which brought it to the attention of various theatre companies.”

As a directorial debut, Sharman’s production is imaginative, resourceful and above all strikingly mature. His signature is unmistakable from the outset.

In his first year out of NIDA, Sharman directs a further six productions. Working again with the Group there’s the very popular On Stage Oz (a revue written by the team at Oz magazine) followed by the Cockney sprawl of Ann Jellicoe’s The Sport of My Mad Mother: Then there’s a production Genet’s The Maids, again with the Group, which features music by a young Richard Meale, the composer who will wrest Patrick White’s Voss into the opera Sharman directs twenty years later.

It’s a sign of its times that The Maids is staged as part of a larger “happening”, which involves five hours of comedy sketches and live rock music.

Theatre and rock’n’roll? Jim Sharman, the son of a boxing-tent entrepreneur, who spent so much of his childhood around travelling sideshows, vaudeville and circus entertainment, shows here his natural instinct for participatory spectacle – and for how it must be reinvented with each new generation. Some new revolution for the stage is brewing here beneath the discotheque lights.

Harry Martin’s The Gents follows—set in a public lavatory designed by the celebrated pop artist and cartoonist Martin Sharp—and then Harold Pinter’s The Lover, with Max Meldrum as the role-playing husband and Anne Haddy as his wife. Both plays were part of Q Theatre’s busy lunchtime program at the AMP Theatrette. One can only wonder at how Pinter’s disquieting, off-beat rhythms must have worked on the crowd of shoppers and office workers.

Between these two there’s also Wesker’s class-conflict drama Chips With Everything for the Independent Theatre. This is the first time Sharman is actually paid to direct, and he gets fifty dollars—the equivalent of a few hundred today.

And then—like the sombre notes of something else again—he thunders his way into Don Giovanni. It is produced by the Elizabethan Trust Opera, and stands as a major landmark in Sharman’s career, and in the history of opera in Australia.

After a brief stint as an assistant director with the Trust, Sharman gets himself into the position of directing his own production of the opera. At first he is asked to oversee a revival, but instead Sharman uses the meagre funds allowed him for the restoration of damaged sets to create something original. It is, of necessity, a radically stripped back production, but it is nonetheless radically new.

The upshot of Sharman’s notorious chess-board production of the Don is uproar followed by glory. The critics in Melbourne hate it because they take Sharman’s minimalism as a savage stripping of the altar of art. It takes Kurt Preraurer in Sydney, music critic for The Nation, a man of formidable learning and sensitivity who witnessed European modernism at first hand, to see the Sharman Don Giovanni for what it really is: the first truly Australian reimagining of an opera.

It introduces into Australian opera the sort of post-War Regietheater of Wieland Wagner: austere, bold, full of atmospheric contrasts of light and dark, with an essentially abstract shaping of dramatic space. But it also allows for Mozart’s enormous and embracing sense of fun, and for that ambiguous classicism where life and love and even death are staged as an elaborate game.

Following the Don, there’s another Pinter, The Birthday Party, for St Martins in Melbourne. Then there is And So to Bed for the National Theatre in Perth. After taking a job with the Old Tote in 1968 he directs the premiere of Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed, the play which would later attract such controversy in Brisbane and Melbourne.

He also directs that old charmer among Bernard Shaw’s pleasant plays, You Never Can Tell, for the Old Tote, with a cast that includes Jacki Weaver and Ron Haddrick among others. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Harry Kippax describes it as the Old Tote’s one credit for that year. Sharman’s future collaborator Rex Cramphorn, who dislikes the play itself, describes Sharman’s production somewhat grudgingly as smooth, honest and thoroughly professional.

But just before the Shaw, Sharman does the infamous Terror Australis at Jane Street Theatre. Bustled in through a sheep race, the audience is confronted with a cast baa-baaing their way through the national anthem. Helen Morse is up there and so is Garry McDonald. It’s a revue, but without anything knockabout or burlesque or good humoured in it.

“It’s violent in that it is an attack on the audience,” Sharman said at the time, taking no prisoners.

It’s mordant, moralistic and at the same time magical, with all the hostility and energy of a generation raised on rock’n’roll. After being reviewed damningly in the The Sydney Morning Herald, Patrick White himself—who knew theatre magic when he saw it—was moved to defend the show in a letter to the editor.

Coming events cast their shadows before them, and such a shadow is Terror Australis. It is a cultural intervention which presages a revolution, a new way of doing things on the stage and a counter culture entire. The year was 1968.

THE MUSICALS (1969-1975)

Invited by producer Harry M. Miller to direct the Sydney production of the passionately anti-war hippie rock musical Hair, Jim Sharman is told that he can do what he likes with it. He is twenty-five years old.

There is some precedent for this—the show’s New York director Tom O’Horgan is also a man of his tripped-out moment—but it’s nonetheless a striking departure from standard practice with major commercial musicals in Australia, which usually reproduce their Broadway or West End originals, restaged by one of the director’s lieutenants.

Sharman designs and lights the production himself and he also decides to cast (at least in part) non-professional actors. This is a nod to the anti-establishment theme of the musical itself, but also, maybe naively, some guarantee of the show’s authenticity, some sense of spontaneity, or at least of a roughness that might look like it. The cast in fact includes such future stars as Marcia Hines and Reg Livermore, and presents a striking example of interracial integration.

The show itself, when it emerges from rehearsals, rattles and roars like the wildest sort of rock’n’roll cult. In five-and-a-half years the Sydney show is seen by more than one-and-half million people.

“Its effect was less that of a piece of theatre and more that of an event that changed almost the entire social structure of the city,” recalls Sharman.

There’s more to the legend of Hair than hitherto buttoned-up Sydneysiders wearing kaftans and talking cool and groovy. Hair is the moment where the counter-culture goes mainstream. It represents—and in its way contributes to—a significant shift in public attitudes about sex, race and the war.

The musical proves an instant culmination of Sharman’s early ideas about performance, rock music, ritual and community. The irresistible rock’n’roll beat recalls for Sharman the drumming that he heard as a boy, the beat that drew punters to his father’s tent boxing troupe. And before that, like a memory in his blood’s pulse, it recalls an ancient ceremonial drum, and the summoning of the tribe: a corroboree.

With a radically inclusive design, Sharman transforms Sydney’s Kings Cross Metro theatre into a site of public celebration, where the cast and the audience are joined together in a happening that transcended hierarchies—the old distinction between the entertainer and his crowd. And by the enthusiasm of the audience, it does seem sometimes to have approached an ecstatic collective experience. It’s a time that likes such acts of faith, and Sharman is glad to be a magus.

After Hair in Sydney there’s a very light, very playful production of As You Like It for the Old Tote, designed by Brian Thomson, which gives the fullest possible play to everything that is frothy and bouncy in Shakespeare’s pastoral romp. Centre stage is a large box which unfolds to reveal a Warhol-influenced pop art forest of Arden, as if nature was a myth always apprehended ironically.

This is the first of many collaborations between Sharman and Thomson, one of the most influential creative partnerships in Australian theatre history.

And so from the blithe to the blasted. In 1970, at Melbourne’s Russell Street Theatre, Sharman does a very stern King Lear for the Melbourne Theatre Company with Tim Elliott as Lear. It’s a production which invokes the darker elements of Kabuki and post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Later that year Sharman goes to Japan to directed the Japanese production of Hair, working with local underground theatremakers but basing everything on the Sydney production. The trip also gives him the chance to observe at first-hand the traditions of Noh theatre, an influence throughout his career.

Back in Sydney, in the narrow space between commitments, he finds time to shoot a film with his friend Helmut Bakaitis: Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens, a rough-and-ready celluloid beast with a counter-cultural theme. It remains a cult item among film-school students. After that there’s Reg Livermore’s musical Lasseter, which Livermore also starred in, about a group of young things fleeing the stifling conservatism of society.

Then, as if hippie ecstasies are not enough, there is Sharman’s encounter with the Most High. Jesus Christ Superstar is first produced by Sharman as an enormous rock concert for the Adelaide Festival in 1972. When he comes to stage a full production of Tim Rice and Andrew Llyod Webber’s rock oratorio at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, Sharman’s vision is essentially operatic, with a consciously monumental ostentation, part arena spectacular and part evangelical revival.

Because of the success of the Australian production, Sharman and designer Brian Thomson are invited to produce the London production at the Palace Theatre. The vision becomes more refined. Now the show has the glowing medieval quality of a morality play. Brian Thomson and New York lighting designer Jules Fisher create an overall effect of elevated simplicity, through which sprawls Rufus Collins’s free-form choreography. The West End production of Superstar runs for nine years, becoming the longest running musical ever. (It is soon outlasted by the Broadway production of Grease.)

The production establishes a new template for popular “operatic” musicals, the direct inspiration for blockbuster British musicals such as CatsLes Mis and The Phantom of the Opera.

With this tremendous success bubbling away in the West End, Sharman turns his attention to smaller projects. A curious revue-style work of documentary theatre—The Trials of Oz—takes him to New York. Then, back in London, Sharman and Thomson do American drummer-turned-playwright Sam Shepard’s comic sci-fi The Unseen Hand in the 63-seat Theatre Upstairs at the top of the Royal Court. Approaching the text at an oblique angle, Thomson covers the entire theatre in live grass, and also drags a Cadillac upstairs, piece by piece. Four years later Sharman describes this as his best production to date.

In 1974, Sharman and Thomson will take on another Shepard work at the Royal Court – The Tooth of Crime.

But first, what can we say about the juggernaut Rocky Horror Show? It premieres in the same venue, the Theatre Upstairs, in 1973. And, in one way or another, its influence continues, always mutant, but still weirdly strong, generation after generation. Richard O’Brien, who played Willie the alien in The Unseen Hand, came to Sharman with a script. They put it together with contributions from everyone, including the original cast. From the very first preview it was a huge success.

Sharman is rather less satisfied with his take on David Williamson’s The Removalists, with Ed Devereaux and Mark McManus, but the production does give a major boost to Williamson’s career.

Returning to Australia, Sharman has his first face-to-face encounter with the work of Brecht since he was a student. He directs The Threepenny Opera for the Old Tote at the opening of the Sydney Opera House. It stars Robin Ramsay as Macheath, Kate Fitzpatrick, Arthur Dignam and Gloria Dawn. Despite mixed local reviews, the London Times music critic who is out for the opening of the opera house likes it immensely.

And so to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the movie version of the musical, which seems virtually to have defined the Australian sense of weird camp and made it go international and viral. Though it has meant different things to different people over the years, it has always been about fun.

And yet, with all its irony and vulgarity, and sheer gusto in the nonsense of dressing up and showing up, Rocky Horror does mark the end of an era, or perhaps the last, decisive shot in a revolution.

According to Sharman, the era of the great rock musical begins with “This Is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius” and ends with “Frank’n’Furter, it’s all over”. Having been such a central figure in this transformation, is it any wonder he is so little tempted to return to the world of stage musicals?

And yet, if not musicals, then what?

RETURN TO OZ (1976-1984)

And so Jim Sharman, after seven years directing blockbuster musicals around the world, comes back to Australia to reconnect with his roots.

He turns down invitations to direct Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in London and instead takes up with novelist and nobel laureate Patrick White, another Australian prodigal son returned from Europe. Sharman’s return journey recalls White’s own, though in a context of greater commercial success.

White had withdrawn from playwriting and the Australian theatre more than a decade before, writing nothing new for the stage after Night on Bald Mountain in 1964 and vetoing any attempt to revive the four already published plays. But White’s passion for the stage is only dormant, not extinguished. All it requires is a ministering angel in the form of a director he trusts.

So, in 1976, Sharman revives The Season at Sarsaparilla in a production for the Old Tote. In collaboration with designer Wendy Dickson, who had designed the 1964 production of White’s Night on Bald Mountain, Sharman’s production emphasises the essential spirituality underlying White’s suburban charade, the gravity of his vision and its implicit religious intensity.

“The origins of a play like The Season at Sarsaparilla are medieval morality plays,” says Sharman, “where you wheeled three carts into a market square, heaven, hell and earth. We understood that what we were dealing with was something very ancient.”

The success of this revival—and the inspiration he takes from his young interpreters—encourages White to start writing for the theatre again.

Almost immediately, new work for the stage starts appearing and Sharman, this time with Brian Thomson as his designer, produces Big Toys in 1977, a play White had written with leading actors Kate Fitzpatrick, Max Cullen and Arthur Dignam in mind. The return of White to the theatre arouses considerable fascination, and although White’s shift from a form of poetic realism to openly political satire leaves some reviewers scratching their heads, the production, with its suave intimations of the moral void beneath the penthouse, does well at the Parade Theatre in Sydney, and later at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne.

Then in 1978, Sharman launches an ambitious experimental company with fellow director Rex Cramphorn: the Paris Company. The idea, as Cramphorn described it, was to present new Australian work of a large scale which did not necessarily fit a naturalistic nature.

Here Sharman directs Dorothy Hewett’s Pandoras Cross. Unfortunately, despite Sharman’s reputation, it fails to attract audiences to the soon-to-be demolished Paris Theatre on Liverpool Street. Audience numbers are low and financial problems soon force premature closure.

White’s A Cheery Soul, originally planned as the third Paris Company production, ends up being presented in January 1979 as part of the interim World Theatre programme that launches the new Sydney Theatre Company, that phoenix from the ashes of the Old Tote.

It’s a significant moment in the history of Australian theatre, transforming White’s once-despised folly into an instant classic. Abandoning the clutter of the original fussily naturalistic stage directions, Sharman puts the play on an almost bare stage with a minimalist set by Brian Thomson. Robyn Nevin gives what will become one of the most notable performances ever seen on the Australian stage as Miss Docker, the monster of virtue who tests, tries and wreaks havoc on the timid men and women of Sarsaparilla. It is an iconic performance in the history of Australian theatre, and the fact that White’s play can sustain acting of this kind makes everyone reevaluate the quality of his dramatic writing. It also works to enhance Sharman’s reputation as an utterly serious theatrical innovator not just a hip boulevardier.

This is something different for Australia, the suburbs elevated and transfigured through a thoroughly internationalised aesthetic, a sort of high modernism. And it’s all done on a large scale, with an epic sense of amplitude, like a new Peer Gynt or Mother Courage.

During this period, Sharman makes the feature film The Night the Prowler from a screenplay by Patrick White. The film makes no money, but the experience encourages White to continue to write screenplays. It was Sharman’s second feature in two years, the Summer of Secrets having won both the critics’ award and the jury prize at the Paris Festival of the Cinema Fantastique.

Another film will follow in the early eighties when Sharman directs the long-awaited Rocky Horror sequel, Shock Treatment, again with Richard O’Brien and Brian Thomson. But he begins the new decade with a return to opera – his first since the landmark Don Giovanni of 1968 – directing the first Australian performance of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice for the 1980 Adelaide Festival.

Designed by Brian Thomson with costumes by Luciana Arrighi, Sharman’s production is at once monumental and labyrinthine as Aschenbach progresses through his bedazzled erotic obsession with Tadzio towards death. Athletic teenagers, choreographed by Ian Spink, gambol and romp before towering black walls and billowing silk sheets in a play of light and shade that is at once majestic and sinister. Myer Fredman conducts a cast including Australian tenor Robert Gard as Aschenbach.

The production is later revived, with new choreography the great Meryl Tankard, for Opera Australia for their 1989 Sydney and 1991 Melbourne seasons, and was last seen—again re-jigged by Sharman and Thomson—in 2005 for the company’s Sydney season.

Sharman’s work at this time is increasingly centred on Adelaide. In 1981, he produces Louis Nowra’s adaptation of Wedekind’s Lulu for the State Theatre of South Australia, and then in 1982 he becomes the artistic director of the Adelaide Arts Festival, at this time the most important festival of its kind in the country.

As the head of the Adelaide Festival, he commissions Patrick White to write a new play, Signal Driver, for director Neil Armfield, and also commissions a new play from David Hare, A Map of the World. He brings out the German Tanztheater wonderwoman Pina Bausch, and gets the expatriate Australian director Elijah Moshinsky and Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström in the Australian premiere of Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair.

Then, from 1982 until 1983, Sharman works as artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, relaunching it as Lighthouse. The major innovation here is the creation of a permanent ensemble of actors including Robert Menzies, Geoffrey Rush, Kerry Walker, John Wood, Gillian Jones, Melita Jurisic, Robert Grubb and Peter Cummins.

Through Lighthouse, Neil Armfield emerges as a major artist, directing a memorable production of Twelfth Nightand the premiere of Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant Is Dancing.

The Sharman highlights at Lighthouse include a production of A Midsummer Nights Dream with Geoffrey Rush as Oberon and Gillian Jones as Titania, and a very stark Mother Courage, designed by Englishwoman Sue Blane – who did those notorious Rocky Horror costumes – and with Kerry Walker in one of the performances of her career as Mother Courage.

He directs Lorca’s compact dream-tragedy of earth and anger, Blood Wedding, with the duende of the piece hyper-visible in the saturated Mars-red lighting design. And there are also two new plays by Louis Nowra, Royal Show and Sunrise, as well as Netherwood, another play from Patrick White. Lighthouse upended the State theatre model, which had tended to emphasise “the best of Broadway and the West End”, and made the radical re-interpretation of classics and new Oz writing a priority.

Sharman’s production of Netherwood, a sprawling dreamplay where madness seems a last defence against the terrors of the real world, goes to the Seymour Centre for the 1984 Sydney Festival, but this is the last time the play has been seen in a professional production.

As I have argued elsewhere, White’s work is a standing invitation to any director or designer who wants to show again what is possible in the theatre. All instability, flight, and endless opportunity, it is the sort of work that nourishes ambitious theatre-makers.

In a time when bright young things are falling over themselves to remake the ancient classics, why aren’t we seeing similarly radical reinterpretations of the Australian repertoire? Plays like Netherwood, and the other late plays of Patrick White, difficult as they are, should not be allowed to languish.

It is in this sense that Sharman’s legacy, and particularly his work with Patrick White, needs to be understood as a vital link in a living chain: as something which belongs to all who have an interest in Australian theatre, and something which needs to be engaged by new theatre-makers, whether in a spirit of renewal or self-conscious resistance.

INTO THE DESERT (1985-1999)

After his stint in Adelaide, Jim Sharman returns to Sydney and to the life of a freelance director, hurling himself into a series of those dazzling and excruciated plays by Swedish genius August Strindberg.

He begins in March 1985 at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, his old alma mater, directing 19 actors from the graduating year in a version of Dreamplay. The work, a dizzying, dark fairytale, has always held a special fascination for Sharman, with its naturalism transfigured by the heart’s black yearnings into myth and poetry, revealing what Artaud called life’s immense and universal aspect.

With a stage covered in sand and dominated by an enormous rocking horse, Sharman’s production emphasises, as the toughest and doughtiest of the Sydney critics Harry Kippax puts it, the beauties of light and shadow and movement, speech and silence. The production, he says, is a thing of enchantment.

“Strindberg depicted a world on the razor’s edge, not unlike the world we live in today, and his plays are emotional journeys, trials by fire,” says Sharman in an interview at the time. “Fear was at the base of Strindberg’s plays; fear makes for danger and danger makes for exciting theatre.”

This is another of the lessons Sharman learned in sideshow alley: the drama won’t thrill unless the stakes are high.

The Dance of Death, adapted by Sharman and May-Brit Akerholt, follows soon after for the Sydney Theatre Company, with Rhys McConnochie and Gillian Jones as the deathly duelling husband and wife who seem to stamp each other into the stage. Here the nuptial chamber is transformed into a black and grey fortress against a background of billowing crimson sheets, before which the rituals of pain and exploitation are played out.

The year 1986 is dominated by Richard Meale’s Voss, the opera derived from Patrick White’s novel. David Malouf writes the libretto, radically compressing the story of the German explorer’s ill-fated attempt to cross the continent, but capturing the poetical essence of his telepathic connection with Laura Trevelyan, with its open invitation to soulful, swooning, mystical fusions.

By way of stripped-back ceremonials, Sharman attempts to merge the interior world of Voss and Laura’s shared soul journey with the epic landscapes of deserts and scrub. The set is by Brian Thomson, lighting by Nigel Levings and Luciana Arrighi designs the costumes. The part of Voss is sung by noted Australian baritone Geoffrey Chard, a distinguished Verdian who had also sung Wagner for Reginald Goodall in London.

In some ways, Voss represents a culmination of the hopes Sharman had when he returned to Australia more than a decade earlier. Here was a new work, created for the national opera company that took the repertoire in a new direction, away from the traditional European chocolate box of establishment expectation. Later that year the opera goes to both Sydney and Melbourne. In 1987 it’s released internationally on the Philips label, and in 1988 the recording is broadcast on the ABC.

The following year, Sharman again works with Malouf, directing his first play, Blood Relations, for the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the Sydney Theatre Company.

Later that same year he directs the Australian premiere of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, which yields a breath-taking performance by Kaarin Fairfax as Beth, the brutalised young wife. This is his third encounter with Shepard, having previously directed Richard O’Brien in both The Unseen Hand and The Tooth of Crime at London’s Royal Court. It’s also his fourth collaboration in a row with lighting designer Nigel Levings. And it’s also, a bit surprisingly, the first time that he has worked with Company B at Belvoir. Later in 1987 Sharman will join the Company B board.

The next year he returns again to NIDA, this time to do a production of Genet’s The Screens, the play which Peter Brook famously did at the RSC as part of his Theatre of Cruelty season.

Then it was Opera Australia again for Stravinsky’s The Rakes Progress with its libretto by Auden, working with designers Tim Ferrier and Ross Wallace, the same young graduates who had designed Dreamplay for him.

Through the early nineties, Sharman’s work in the theatre is intermittent. In 1990 he returns briefly to the world of musicals to direct the Sydney production of Chess, with Tim Rice’s lyrics and its score by the boys from ABBA. With this popular fantasy of East-West rivalry, the transported Sharman renews a friendship with Rice that goes back to his Superstar days.

Then, in 1992, in a coproduction with the Queensland Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Sharman directs his own work, Shadow and Splendour, based loosely on the life of Richard Sorge, the famous German-born Russian spy who infiltrated Japanese high command during World War Two. The play is in fact a compromised staging of a proposed film. In his memoir Blood and Tinsel, Sharman describes the story of Sorge as unfinished business. If nothing else, the play confirms Sharman’s enduring fascination with the land of the rising sun.

In 1993 Sharman produces a documentary on Patrick White in collaboration with White’s biographer David Marr.The Burning Piano: A Portrait of Patrick White featured interviews with and readings by such eminent figures as Judy Davis, Kate Fitzpatrick, Barry Humphries, Robyn Nevin, Geoffrey Rush and Kerry Walker. Unfortunately, [legal] issues with footage used in the documentary mean that it can no longer be shown.

In 1994, Sharman works again with the NIDA Company on a production of The Wedding Song, a musical by Hilary Bell and Stephen Rae. And in 1995 he returns to Strindberg with a hard-edged production of Miss Julie and the Stronger for the State Theatre Company of South Australia. For Miss Julie, Pamela Rabe is Julie and Robert Menzies is Jean, while in The Stronger Rabe is joined by Jeanette Cronin.

It’s interesting to consider this turn to Strindberg in the latter years of Sharman’s career as a stage director. It’s as though Strindberg represents a purification of the old discernable wish to transcend the sawdust and tinsel, the surface glitz of the theatre, and explore those regions of soul the medium habitually leaves in shade.

In 1997, as to confirm this turn toward last things, he directs The Tempest for Bell Shakespeare with John Bell as Prospero. And, with the exception of a workshop musical for the Sydney Theatre Company, this is the last thing seen on the stage from the one-time wunderkind in the noisy prattling nineties, as the millennium looms.


The new millennium begins with the kick and glitter of cabaret as Sharman returns to the National Institute for the Dramatic Arts for Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill. The production stars a young Amie McKenna, among others, with sets designed by future Belvoir artistic director Ralph Myers and choreography by Shaun Parker.

Kabarett Junction follows in 2002. Opening in a cosy new bar above a pizza parlour in Bondi, Sharman’s show brings the music of Lou Reed and Randy Newman together with Weimar classics by Brecht and Weill. There are anthems aplenty—from “Walk on the Wild Side” to “Mack the Knife”—but this isn’t cabaret that settles for crowd-pleasing covers and comic sketches. Sharman also deals in danger and dissonance, social satire and sympathy for outsiders and misfits. Amie McKenna – today known to cabaret aficionados as the inimitable Ava Torch – once again stars, along with venue founder David Hawkins. Musical direction is by Alan John.

Should we be surprised that a director who has worked on the biggest stages in the world should so often returns to these intimate, sticky-carpet venues?

“It has never mattered to me whether I’m working on a musical in the West End or a little play in the theatre upstairs at the Royal Court or a production at NIDA,” says Sharman. “I always deal with them in the same way. If it’s a big opera, of course, you’re conscious that there are more people involved and that there’s more running around required, but the basic approach is never any different. I don’t care if a show runs for eleven years or three performances, I see them all as equally important.”

This is perhaps the side of Sharman which theatre historian Julian Meyrick calls the “diligent autodidact”. He has that natural scepticism of established hierarchies typical of the self-taught.

In 2004, Sharman directs Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, that violent and absurd farce which is so much like a collision between Noises Off and Rocky Horror. Here Sharman works again with Brian Thomson and Nigel Levings, with clothes** by Alice Lau.

Soon after, a new work by Stephen Sewell called Three Furies comes to the attention of Brett Sheehy, at the time artistic director of the Sydney Festival. It’s an ambitious portrait of English painter Francis Bacon and his stormy relationship with George Dyer, the rough-and-tumble young man who was for many years Bacon’s muse.

Impressed by the originality of the piece and determined to present it at the Festival, Sheehy passes it on to Sharman.

“Reading it,” recalls Sharman, “I was drawn back to London in the 1970s and Bacon’s searching, seductive yet forensic gaze. The subject was dark and familiar, but its treatment was original and intriguing.”

Sharman’s connection with Sewell goes back to the Lighthouse days of the early eighties, when the young Sewell was brought in as one of three resident scribes, the other two being Patrick White and Louis Nowra. Sewell shares with Sharman – and indeed with White and the Nowra – a native hostility to theatre which glories only in the outward seeming of things. He is a writer who, like Francis Bacon in his paintings, is never afraid of showing the audience an ugly, inward truth, of spilling the guts of a difficult matter and revelling in the outrage of it.

For Three Furies, Sharman introduces Sewell to composer Basil Hogios and a unique cabaret event is born. The 2005 Sydney Festival season wins Sharman a Helpmann Award for best direction and the production is revived for the 2006 Perth and Adelaide Festivals.

The production also marks 35 years since Sharman and Thomson first worked together as director and designer. And how apt that Francis Bacon should be their dark angel of remembrance; in 1970 it was Magritte and Warhol. Their shared aesthetic project has always been guided by the best lights of contemporary visual art.

Later in 2006, Sharman and Thomson return to another of their landmarks, Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, which is revived for Opera Australia. This time Britten specialist Richard Hickox is at the podium while Philip Langridge sings Aschenbach and with baritone Peter Coleman-Wright as his alter ego.

In 2008 Sharman publishes his memoir, Blood & Tinsel, through Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Press’ prestige imprint. Not only is the narrative arc of Sharman’s story irresistible – from country sideshows to the lights of the West End and back again – but the book also serves as an invaluable document of period, showing just how far the Australian theatre scene has changed since the 1960s.

To close out the first decade of the new millennium, in 2009 Sharman directs a very youthful, very modern new production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte for Opera Australia. Sharman and his designers create a seductive world of shifting colours, abstract shapes and quicksilver transformations, the perfect match to Mozart’s dash and fizz. Brisbane-born conductor Simon Hewett leads the orchestra.

There’s something recognisably Australian about the production in the brashness and lightness of it, but amid the bursts of confetti and sunbeds there’s also a clear attempt to engage the opera’s often obscured spiritual aspect.

For Sharman, the way to make an old story live is to tell it in a new way. Here Cosi Fan Tutte is not a comedy of love and love’s betrayal; it is rather a meditation on the inevitability of change in all things. That is, it’s not so much morality but mortality which Sharman is interested in.

And of course, this has been his approach all along: to do new works like the classics and the classics like new works. With all things fluid and nothing permanent, least of all on the stage, all that a theatre-maker can do is try to speak to his or her culture its own terms.

And how much of our culture today is a virtual culture? More and more, Jim Sharman is working with new media art forms – with digital technologies both immersive and interactive.

This begins in earnest in 2011 when he establishes Sunday Pictures. The company’s first project, Andy X, premieres in 2012, described as a forty minute screen séance with Andy Warhol.

Directed by Sharman, it’s an online, epiphanic combination of cabaret and super-bright pop art portraiture, reflecting on Warhol’s life and legacy, his invention of a post-industrial sublime and the significance of his art of surfaces and slippages today.

Stephen Sewell writes the screenplay and Basil Hogios the music. Akos Armont stars as Warhol and Sheridan Harbridge is Judy Garland. Sharman also works closely with cinematographer Bonnie Elliott and young designer Justin Nardella to develop the work’s highly-stylised technicolour aesthetic. It’s a project which collides new and old, not only referencing the history of pop art and avant garde assemblages, but also the work of visionary film directors such as Kubrick and Hitchcock.

Most recently, Jim Sharman has returned again to NIDA and to Shakespeare’s The Tempest in what is being described as a form of Jacobean science fiction. And so, what’s past is prologue, whereof what is to come – the labyrinthine ways of loving and dreaming will again, under the influence of an auspicious star, be remade for a new generation.

Andrew Fuhrmann – 2015