Irene Mitchell MBE 1905-1995

Irene Mitchell

Irene Mitchell

Like many other actors of her generation, Mitchell found paying work in radio. She announced, hosted and acted on commercial stations and the ABC.

One of her most extraordinary achievement was designing and staging The Women, with its all-female cast of 31, on the tiny St Chad’s stage.

or the Brotherhood of St Laurence she directed Gaol Does Not Cure.

Mitchell was Truscott’s guest at the 1968 Academy Awards, when he received two Oscars for his Camelot art direction.

 

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Their first production there was Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight and their leading lady was Irene Mitchell. She recalled, ‘In the first act I played a lady and in the second I was a prostitute – quite a marvellous debut!’ Thus started her long association with the Melbourne Little Theatre, later renamed St Martin’s.

Like many other actors of her generation, Mitchell found paying work in radio. She announced, hosted and acted on commercial stations and the ABC. It was an ABC producer, John Cairns, who recruited her for the inaugural drama production of Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre Movement, As You Like It, at the Princess in 1937. It was an instant success, and Mitchell’s Rosalind won special praise.

When war broke out several male members of the Little Theatre team joined up, so Brett Randall invited Mitchell to join him in running the theatre. She stage managed, acted, taught and, increasingly, directed. She delighted in discovering and nurturing new talent. It was she who directed the world premiere of Enduring as the Camphor Tree, a delicate fantasy by the Australian playwright Russell Oakes. That was in 1946. She directed Sumner Locke Elliott’s Invisible Circus shortly after and Douglas Stewart’s Shipwreck in 1950. Perhaps her most extraordinary achievement was designing and staging The Women, with its all-female cast of 31, on the tiny St Chad’s stage. A hard task master and a perfectionist, Mitchell was as comfortable with Antigone or The Madwoman of Chaillot as she was with Hay Fever or Only an Orphan Girl.

Irene Mitchell relished new challenges. For the Brotherhood of St Laurence she directed Gaol Does Not Cure, a ground-breaking 20-minute film about alcoholism, shot in the slums of Fitzroy. She assisted with staging Carols by Candlelight and, in 1951, produced and directed the moving and innovative An Aboriginal Moomba – Out of the Dark, Australia’s first professionally-staged all-Aboriginal production. It was presented at the Princess Theatre for the Commonwealth Jubilee celebrations with a 40-strong cast including Harold Blair, Georgia Lee, Doug Nichols and Bill Onus. Well-known writer and Little Theatre stalwart Jean Campbell was, in her own words, ‘the scriptress’. The cast crowned Mitchell their Princess, their Daughter of Love. Later, it was she who suggested ‘Moomba’ – meaning ‘let’s get together and have fun’ – as the name for Melbourne’s annual festival.

It gave her special pleasure to follow the careers of people she’d worked with at the Little – a theatrical who’s who that included George Fairfax, Frank Thring, Pamela Stephenson, Brian James, Terry Norris, Julia Blake, Beverley Dunn, Moira Carleton, Norman Kaye, Anne Charleston, Ernie Bourne, Noel Ferrier, Jon Finlayson, Sheila Florance, Zoe Caldwell and – of course – John Truscott, her unofficial adopted son. He came to the Little from the National and was resident designer for six years. It was Mitchell who introduced him to Garnet H. Carroll; this eventually led to his work on Camelot on stage and screen. Mitchell was Truscott’s guest at the 1968 Academy Awards, when he received two Oscars for his Camelot art direction.

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Biographical references

Sally Dawes: ‘Irene Mitchell’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Sally Dawes and Ross Thorne: ‘St Martin’s Theatre Company’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
George Fairfax: ‘Creative lifetime of loving influence’, The Age, 24 July 1995
Programme: An Aboriginal Moomba – Out of the Dark, Princess Theatre, 1951
Frank Van Straten: ‘Irene Mitchell – Master Builder’, in Stages, November-December 1994