Robin Lovejoy OBE 1923 – 1985
- Robin Lovejoy OBE 1923 – 1985
Robin Lovejoy OBE 1923 – 1985
Robin Casper Lovejoy was born at Lambasa, Fiji, on 17 December 1923, and came to Australia with his parents in his early teens.
Lovejoy joined May Hollinworth’s amateur Metropolitan Theatre, first as an actor, then as a designer and director.
In Melbourne Lovejoy directed and designed for Frank Thring’s Arrow Theatre and for Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre Opera Company.
‘The actors here today owe Robin a debt,’ said Ruth Cracknell in her eulogy for Robin Lovejoy. ‘His roots were in Australia. He didn’t remain in England. He returned. As its artistic director, he was the guiding force in the Trust Players in the late 1950s and 1960s, that forerunner to all the major subsidised drama companies in the country. His belief in the ability of Australians to perform in their own theatres and to provide work of a high order was second to none. Every production he was connected with was fired with a belief in this country’s artistic viability; the result of this belief was to be seen in theatres across the land.’
An interviewer once asked Robin Lovejoy what he felt most held him back. ‘Time. For me, personally, time. To be involved and interested in just the idea of the Australian theatre is a full life. Perhaps it’s self-indulgent of me, but I feel constantly torn apart because I don’t have the time.’ 1
This seems strange and sad, because Lovejoy packed virtually all his 61 years with creativity, commitment and energetic activity probably unparalleled in Australian theatre.
Robin Casper Lovejoy was born at Lambasa, Fiji, on 17 December 1923, and came to Australia with his parents in his early teens. After four years’ army service he set out to find a niche in the Sydney arts scene. There was little offering in professional theatre, particularly for directors and designers, so Lovejoy joined May Hollinworth’s amateur Metropolitan Theatre, first as an actor, then as a designer and director. In 1950 he was chosen to design the costumes and masks for the National Theatre Ballet Company’s groundbreaking production of Corroboree. That same year illness forced Hollinworth’s withdrawal from the Metropolitan, but Lovejoy directed many productions there until the company’s demise in 1952.
In Melbourne Lovejoy directed and designed for Frank Thring’s Arrow Theatre and for Gertrude Johnson’sNational Theatre Opera Company. Back in Sydney he directed Carmen and an Australian double bill – John Antill’s Endymion and The Devil Take Her by Arthur Benjamin – for Johnson’s rival, Clarice Lorenz’s National Opera of Australia. He also worked with the revitalised Mercury Theatre. From 1953 to 1955 a UNESCO–International Theatre Institute Fellowship took him to Britain and Europe to study design and direction.
Lovejoy’s return home coincided with the inaugural production of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Medea, with the Australian actress Judith Anderson in the role that had made her a legend. Lovejoy was engaged as stage manager and assistant to the General Manager, Hugh Hunt. For the Trust’s Drama Company he designed and directed a stylish production of The Rivals, which won him the prestigious Sydney Drama Critics’ Award; and for the Trust’s Opera Company – eventually it became Opera Australia – he directed La Bohème, Peter Grimes – which he also designed – and Rigoletto.
In 1958 Lovejoy founded the Trust Players. As artistic director, he saw it as the embryo of a truly national touring company, presenting a mixture of classics and contemporary plays, including new Australian works. The first season included The Bastard Country (later decorously retitled Fire on the Wind) by Anthony Coburn and The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day by Peter Kenna. For three years Lovejoy developed the Trust Players, directing all but two of its 14 productions. Harry Kippax, the Sydney Morning Herald’s critic, said they ‘had never been bettered in Sydney’. The Trust Players’ later work was presented in the Palace Theatre in Pitt Street. It was there, in 1961, that Lovejoy gave Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year its professional premiere. The Anzac-themed play had been rejected by a nervous Adelaide Festival board, and the Sydney first night was marred by a bomb scare that cleared the theatre. It was the Trust Players’ final production.
Later in 1961, Lovejoy accepted a two-year Harkness Fellowship. He travelled to the United States via Britain, where he directed a new production of La Bohème for Sadler’s Wells. In the United States he visited many theatre centres, lecturing, designing and directing.
On his return to Australia Lovejoy administered the Elizabethan Trust’s Lunchtime Theatre series. Its 50-minute presentations – many of them specially commissioned plays –reached a new audience of office workers and city shoppers. But Lovejoy found that the Trust’s philosophy had changed. The dream of a national touring drama company had given way to a policy of encouraging regional companies and a more commercial, main-stream entrepreneurial approach. As well, the Trust had become a hotbed of political in-fighting and bitter personality clashes. Lovejoy retreated, his dream shattered. Nevertheless he directed the Trust’s Opera Company in the Australian premiere of Walton’s Troilus and Cressida at the 1964 Adelaide Festival. The composer gave Lovejoy’s work his personal approval.
Back in 1962 Lovejoy had been instrumental in the establishment of the Old Tote Theatre Company, a joint initiative of the University of New South Wales and the National Institute of Dramatic Art. In 1965, when the Tote’s director, Robert Quentin, resigned, Lovejoy and Tom Brown became co-directors; Lovejoy was sole director from 1969. In 1966, the original Old Tote Theatre, a converted army hut on the university campus, was supplemented by the Jane Street Theatre, a recycled church hall, seating fewer than 100. Here Lovejoy staged a remarkable season of Australian plays, including his reworking of Edward Geoghegan’s 1844 ballad opera The Currency Lass.
Lovejoy moulded and developed the Old Tote with skill, care, and tireless dedication. He masterminded its growth from tin-shed infancy to adulthood and maturity. Writing in the magazine Masque in 1967, Denis O’Brien said, ‘The Old Tote provides the sole support of anyone with a passion for good theatre in Sydney.
Lovejoy consistently produces the best professional drama in Australia. Many an experienced “pro” has been “rediscovered” on the Old Tote stage: the place rarely lets a good actor down. It doesn’t pay magnanimously, but it does offer theatrical dignity often lost working in too many TV commercials. More satisfying for the patron, though, is the stream of talented youngsters being carefully brought forward to centre stage. Some of them give the Australian theatre a promise of vitality which I sometimes despair of seeing.’
In 1969 the Old Tote separated from NIDA and became the official state drama company of New South Wales. The following year the company moved into the Parade Theatre, another conversion, in the university grounds at Kensington. Among Lovejoy’s most acclaimed productions at this time was The Taming of the Shrew; hailed as displaying, for the first time, a truly Australian approach to Shakespeare, it was televised by the ABC.
In October, 1973, the Old Tote took up residence in the Drama Theatre of the newly-completed Sydney Opera House. Lovejoy’s inaugural production there, Richard II, was condemned by critics, but his second, the premiere of David Williamson’s What If You Died Tomorrow? fared better. It also played the Comedy in Melbourne, and in the West End – the first complete Australian production seen in Britain since Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1957. In 1974 Lovejoy’s services to the theatre were recognised by an OBE, and he was persuaded by Paul Cox to take a featured role in My First Wife; it was his only screen appearance. That same year Lovejoy survived an Old Tote ‘palace revolution’, but he resigned soon after. The Old Tote finally collapsed in 1978.
Lovejoy turned to freelance directing and designing, and accepted work from interstate companies. In 1975 he directed Equus for the Queensland Theatre Company, Blithe Spirit for the South Australian Theatre Company, and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda for the Victorian Opera Company. The following year he directed a ‘Texas-style’ Much Ado About Nothing at the Dallas Theatre Centre.
In 1977 Lovejoy was appointed artistic advisor to the Victorian Opera Company’s reincarnation, the Victoria State Opera. For the VSO he staged Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and Debussy’s Pélleas and Melisande(1977), the Australian professional premiere of Idomeneo, designed by John Truscott (1978), The Pearl Fishers, again designed by Truscott (1979), Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses (1980), and Die Fledermaus, for which he also adapted the dialogue (1981) – all at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. He also directed an ‘environment theatre’ presentation of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria. The Australian Opera recycled his Idomeneo as a vehicle for Joan Sutherland, and engaged Lovejoy to direct The Girl of the Golden West (1979) and Walton’s The Bear(1980).
In 1981 Lovejoy became head of design and direction at NIDA, where his energy and experience inspired a new generation of theatre people. He continued there until shortly before his death, on 14 December 1985. Appropriately, a memorial service was held at the Sydney Opera House.
Robin Lovejoy made his mark on more than 80 plays, 30 operas and five television dramas. He was demanding, fiery, often impatient and tyrannical, but he gave Australian actors and audiences 40 years of sheer theatrical magic. This is encapsulated in his personal archive, which is preserved in the National Library in Canberra. His daughter, Amanda, is a noted stage and film designer.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
John Clark: ‘Robin Lovejoy’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Ruth Cracknell: A Biased Memoir, Penguin Books, 1997
Frank Van Straten: ‘Robin Lovejoy – master builder’, in Stages, September-October 1993