The Old Vic on Tour: Australia 1955

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In 1955 The Old Vic Company went on a six-month tour to Australia. Directed by Michael Benthall and starring Katharine Hepburn and Robert Helpmann, the performances of The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure were performed in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

Felicia (Felix) Warde was part of the Wardrobe team and travelled with the Company. Upon arriving in Australia, she met a local Stage Manager, Peter Smith, who had been recruited for the tour – by the time they reached Adelaide the two were engaged. They returned to the UK with the rest of the Company on the P&O Ship Iberia and married in 1956.

‘The beginning of this association was but a dream derived from my singular admiration for the actor Laurence Olivier, and for his association with Australia through touring here with that Company shortly after the War. The dream remained with me as I sought to acquire some theatrical skills at the Independent [Theatre in Sydney] and beyond through my previously mentioned and fortunate employment with the Old Vic Australian tour of 1955.

Shortly after arriving in England early in the December of that year, Felix and I, as recent members of the Australian touring unit, were able to attend a performance of The Winter’s Tale at The Old Vic. There was a sort of welcome home party afterwards whereby the resident London Company could meet with those returning from abroad…

A few months and while ‘on the road’ with Romanoff and Juliet I had received a phone call from John Murphy at The Old Vic asking whether I could be available for an approaching North American tour. What a temptation, but I did not believe it would have been fair to leave my current employment while the show was still being groomed for its West End season. So I declined. Later in the year I was approached again, and with Romanoff’s London season by then successfully underway, and with the prospect of being faced with several months of repetition, while checking the props and playing the panatrope, I seriously contemplated the possibility of being able to join The ‘Vic’s’ London season for 1956/57.

The interview that followed was a strange affair. Present for The Old Vic was their Production Manager and their new Stage Director. The latter, Roy Parker, looked familiar and I remembered having seen him backstage at the Tivoli, while I was involved with bumping-in (getting-in) scenery for the N.S.W. Opera. The Stratford Company was then still in residence for the final week of its Sydney season back in 1953. Although a renowned organisation, and held by many as the nearest thing Britain then had to a National Theatre, it was also a very poor establishment, unable to boast the well-furnished accoutrements now common with many subsidised performing arts flagship companies. We met in a small dusty attic room somewhere above the dress circle foyer. They sat, side by side, behind an unassuming and plain table; it was really only suitable for one occupant. My future Stage Director was very quiet while the Production Manager wanted to know about my duties with their Australian Company, what I had done since arriving in England and how much my current employment paid weekly. I think they had already decided that I would do, nevertheless they both visibly paled and, indeed, glanced alarmingly towards each other when I mentioned currently receiving fifteen pounds per week. Miss Bayliss may have been long gone in 1956, but her spirit surely lingered to still preserve the renowned and traditionally small salaries. In my mind I was already quite prepared to suffer a cut, after all the experience offered in an involvement with eight or so productions in the one season was an incredibly appealing challenge.’

Peter Smith

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