Southern comfort



Southern comfort

Lyrebird — Tales of Helpmann
By Tyler Coppin
Directed by Adam Cook
At the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Until March 19

Review by Mark Stoyich

The three greatest South Australians of my lifetime were Don Dunstan, now sadly mourned; Hugh Stretton, the expert on urban planning (and my history tutor at Adelaide University); and Robert Helpmann, choreographer, actor, director and dancer.

For 125 years, Prince Alfred College (PAC) has been a proud bastion of mediocrity, educating (or not) the sons of the Adelaide establishment who weren't establishment enough to go to St Peter's. In the 1970s (and, I suspect, now) the Old Boys (as former inmates are called) the Prince Alfred was most proud of were a couple of cricket players called Chappell.

It wasn't until some years after I'd escaped that I discovered that, half a century earlier, Robert Helpmann had gone to Prince Alfred. By far the most famous "Old Boy" the school had ever produced, and one of the most famous Australians of his time, was never mentioned. Was he ever invited to visit, I wonder, to address the boys? If he had been, he would have accepted. He was never one to turn down the offer of an audience.

Young Bobby was expelled from PAC for smoking on the tram, although the real reason was more likely something to do with him dancing about the school yard swathed diaphanously in mosquito netting. This information, and a hundred other fascinating glimpses of Helpmann's life, emerge in Tyler Coppin's extravagant one-man show, Lyrebird.

This is a show that has been evolving for some years, since Robyn Archer commissioned it for the Adelaide Festival. It was first seen in its present incarnation as a one-man show last year at the Wharf, where the small upstairs theatre was perfect for Coppin's recreation of the intimate atmosphere of Helpmann's dressing room between acts of Don Quixote.

Since then Coppin has perfected his tribute to the old hoofer, using make-up (the amount of make-up Helpmann used on stage and off is a recurring theme) and theatrical gestures to make himself look astonishingly like him, and even making a good fist of the strange Adelaide-old queen accent (all the more extraordinary given that Coppin is from the US).

He takes us from precocious beginnings in Mt Gambier on his father's station, through dance class in Adelaide (the big smoke!), an episode of what we'd call gay-gashing in Sydney, a rapid rise (based mostly on self-confidence) in London, the triumphs, the famous names (Margot Fonteyn, Nureyev, Katherine Hepburn) — but none of these biographical facts are dwelt on.

A poignant story, presumably fictional, of a sort of love gone wrong runs throughout the narrative, creating a suggestion of loneliness and bitterness in what seemed a glittering and generous life.

That other great Adelaide subversive, Don Dunstan, said of Helpmann: "He was born into the stifling conformity of Adelaide society but insisted on going his own way — which was not theirs. And along the way he showed a fine contempt for the jeers of his detractors" — and also enormous courage.

The same could be said for Dunstan, equally hated by the establishment in his day. Mismanagement and mediocre government have made Adelaide a rather sad shadow of its former self, but its contribution lives on: just as the memory of Dunstan reminds us that our politicians need not alway be liars or fools, Helpmann reminds us that Australians need not always be seen by the world as big strong, philistine and dumb, good only for cannon fodder.