Allan Wilkie CBE 1878-1970

Alan Wilkie

Alan Wilkie

Born in Liverpool on 9 February 1878, Wilkie made his stage debut in 1899 as an extra in A Lady of Quality at the Comedy Theatre in London.

The Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company debuted at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne on 11 September 1920 with Macbeth.

 

All the world his stage

In 2004, at a function to raise funds for the Bell Shakespeare Company, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam recalled: ‘In 1928 I had my 12th birthday during Year 2 at Telopea Park High School in Canberra, where we were studying our first Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night. At that time Canberra had a smaller population than any of the cities or towns on Bell’s 2004 itinerary. The citizens of Canberra, most of whom had moved from Melbourne for the opening of the new Parliament House in May 1927, were entranced by three plays performed at the Capitol Theatre by the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company. Allan Wilkie was accompanied by his wife. As John Bell proves, it helps to have a wife with a romantic name; Wilkie’s wife was Frediswyde Hunter-Watts. The three plays were Twelfth Night – with Wilkie as Malvolio, Merchant of Venice – with Wilkie as Shylock, and Henry VIII. My parents took me to all three. My eight-year-old sister, Freda, was not taken and still resents it.’

For a generation of Australians, Shakespeare and Allan Wilkie were synonymous. ‘He was an authority on Shakespeare,’ wrote Hal Porter. ‘His range was wider by far than that of the many Shakespearians Australia had seen: Brooke, Dampier, Rignold, Sullivan, Montgomery, William Anderson, Charles Kean, Conrad Knowles, Edwin Booth, and those who – even at the level of Dan Barry – tossed off Othello on Saturday night, after a matinee of Deadwood Dick’s Revenge.’

Born in Liverpool on 9 February 1878, Wilkie made his stage debut in 1899 as an extra in A Lady of Quality at the Comedy Theatre in London. His aptitude for Shakespeare soon won him roles in touring companies headed by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Ben Greet and Frank Benson. In 1905 he formed his own company and toured England, South Africa, India, China and Japan. Rather than try to re-establish himself in wartime England, Wilkie decided to try his luck in Australia. With his actress wife, the aforementioned Frediswyde Hunter-Watts, he arrived in 1915.

In 1916 George Marlow engaged him to head his Grand Shakespearean Company. Established to mark the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, the troupe toured widely, presenting Shakespeare – plus melodrama and 18th-century comedy – at affordable admission prices.

With this experience under his belt, Wilkie formed his own company – the first serious attempt to establish a permanent Australian touring Shakespeare company – with the goal of producing every one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. The Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company debuted at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne on 11 September 1920 with Macbeth.

Though Wilkie recruited a versatile group of local actors, he and his wife invariably took the leading or featured roles. Traditional and engaging, their productions attracted audiences in small towns as well as capital cities. For economy and practicality, his settings were simple and readily adaptable to any size stage. Wilkie always used an orchestra, engaging local musicians to save costs. Any profits were invested in new costumes and scenery. When money was tight, the repertoire was adjusted accordingly: a season of melodrama in an outback mining town could do wonders for the bank balance!

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Alan Wilkie souvenir

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Biographical references

John Golder: ‘A Cultural Missionary on Tour: Allan Wilkie’s Shakespearean Company, 1920-1930’, in O Brave New World, Currency Press, 2001
Hal Porter: Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby, 1965
John Rickard: ‘Allan Wilkie’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 12
Lisa Warrington: ‘Allan Wilkie’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995