Richard Wherrett AM 1940-2001

Richard Wherrett

Richard Wherrett

Wherrett mounted three notable STC productions ‘away from home’ at the Sydney Royal:
Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1982 and Noel Coward’s Present Laughter in 1983.

Wherrett persuaded the NSW Government to fund new STC headquarters and a small additional performance space in an unused wharf building in Hickson Road, Walsh Bay.

From 1985 to 1988 Wherrett was a member of the Australia Council’s Performing Arts Board.

After eleven exhausting yet productive years, Wherrett resigned from the Sydney Theatre Company in August 1990.

 

Wherrett mounted three notable STC productions ‘away from home’ at the Sydney Royal:
Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1982 and Noel Coward’s Present Laughter in 1983. The latter starred John Hargreaves, Wendy Hughes, Geraldine Turner and Robyn Nevin. At the end of 1983 came the now-legendary eight-and-a-half hour version of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which Wherrett co-directed with John Gaden; it later played in Melbourne and Adelaide. The fact that Nick Nick, as it was more efficiently known, was an STC–Australian Opera co-production, elicited a snide comment in the magazine Matilda that it was the sort of thing that ‘Patrick Veitch [of the AO] and Richard Wherrett would cook up together in bed.’ Wherrett sued and won. His action against the Sun-Herald for describing his production of Harold in Italy as ‘wanking’ was vindicated with an apology and a retraction. Wherrett also sustained a long barrage from The Bulletin’s critic, Brian Hoad, which culminated in a bitter exchange of views in The Bulletin in March 1986.

After much lobbying, Wherrett persuaded the NSW Government to fund new STC headquarters and a small additional performance space in an unused wharf building in Hickson Road, Walsh Bay. The conversion was designed by Vivian Fraser, who had also worked on the refurbishments of the first and second Nimrod Theatres. The new venue, the 340-seat Wharf, opened with a season of short new Australian plays on 12 December 1984, capping a year in which his contribution to the performing arts had been rewarded with Membership of the Order of Australia.

In the later 1980s Wherrett directed The Cobra, one of Robert Helpmann’s last stage appearances, Hedda Gabler with Judy Davis, Sondheim’s Company with Geraldine Turner, and David Williamson’s Emerald City, which was also presented in London to mark Australia’s Bicentennial. Similarly, the STC’s productions of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and Michael Gow’s Away went to the Pepsico Summer Festival in New York. In 1987 Wherrett directed his second opera, Turandot, for the Victoria State Opera.

From 1985 to 1988 Wherrett was a member of the Australia Council’s Performing Arts Board and in 1990 he received the Sydney Theatre Critics’ Circle major award for his ‘Significant Contribution to Sydney Theatre’.

After eleven exhausting yet productive years, Wherrett resigned from the Sydney Theatre Company in August 1990. The remaining decade of his life was filled with new challenges. The first was a monumental debacle: Gypsy, a remounting of the classic musical that was to star Geraldine Turner. The cast met on 13 April and the finance fell through three days later. Curtain. Jesus Christ Superstar for Harry M. Miller/IMG was next, with a star cast including John Farnham, Kate Ceberano, Jon Stevens, John Waters and Angry Anderson. Originally created for arena presentation in 1992, the show was later recast and reworked for a 1995 national tour of conventional venues. In 1992 Wherrett succeeded John Truscott as Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. It was not a happy experience, and he resigned after producing only two of the three festivals for which he had been contracted. The highlight of his first festival was the groundbreaking Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach and the second featured a memorable one-off concert performance of Steven Sondheim’s Follies.

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Biographical references

Ron Blair: ‘Richard Wherrett’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Tony Watts: John Hargreaves – a Celebration, Parrot Management, 2000
Jacki Weaver: Much Love, Jac, Allen & Unwin, 2005
Richard Wherrett: The Floor of Heaven, Sceptre, 2000