Some people have kindly asked for a copy of the speech I gave on Monday this week at the memorial for Bille held at QPAC’s Playhouse.
I was frankly at a loss to know where to begin when I was asked by Wesley Enoch Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company to contribute to the memorial. Of course I wanted to speak about the man and the artist I’d known for so many years but what to say?
Eventually a theme emerged – ‘Bille the Actor’ – and, after reading back over our conversations over the years, I decided to reflect upon and use his own words. Many were taken from Bille’s Facebook snippets over the past 4 or so years. They reveal much about the way he thought about the work – its anxieties and joys, the pride and passion and the deep fondness he felt for home whether he was overseas or here at home in ‘the old house,’ as he called it, at Ascot.
I’m posting the speech here on Greenroom in memoriam
THIS IS THE STUFF: a memorial for Bille Brown AM – actor and playwright
Bille and I began our lives in the theatre as actors at Queensland Theatre Company. That’s when, at the end of 1971, I first saw his work beside Geoffrey Rush, another young member of the company. Bille was a most unusual ginger cat in THE WRONG SIDE OF THE MOON. We went on to work together in a half dozen or so productions for the Company, and later I directed two of his plays TUFF and EGGFROTH THE FRITHED. These, along with SPRINGLE form a trilogy of plays for young people that were commissioned from Bille by QTC.
For the last 5 or so years, we have also been Facebook friends, and it was here in the virtual world that we would often chat about times past and laugh over old production shots.
In June 2012 he was writing on Facebook about the terror of opening nights. It was then THE HISTRIONIC for The Malthouse and Sydney Theatre Company. His astonishing performance as Bruscon would be nominated in the year’s Helpmann Awards. He was awake at dawn with cramps in the legs and terror-sweats. His status update that morning reads:
Another first night seems just like that, the first night … my first play has just been republished – it played all over Queensland and northern NSW and the little income it generated kept me going on my first trip to Europe years ago.
That first play TUFF held a special place in his heart. In 2009, he added a post-script to one of our online chats. It is a perfectly-constructed sentence that acknowledges the significance of that time and that play to him:
Did you know that Dianne Cilento directed it at The Royal Court, theatre upstairs while Samuel Beckett directed his own production of GODOT downstairs.
The man had presence and panache: the hats, the jackets, the scarves. He loved looking good and dressing for the occasion. He appreciated detail and it showed in his art as well as in life. November 2011.
This morning I bought my first Armani jacket for 15 bucks at The Wayside Chapel shop. Bought two. Life’s Good!
Larger than life, robust in body and heart his performances on stage were always memorable. He could camp it up with the best of them … his cross-dressing Gertrude in Michael Boddy’s mad panto HAMLET ON ICE at the old UQ Cement Box in the 70s was one such seared into my memory. He wore a pair of baby’s dummies as earrings as I recall. He could also be surprisingly tender and delicate and restrained as was his finely drawn portrait of Dr Dorn in THE SEAGULL at Belvoir a couple of years ago. Of that performance he wrote in June 2011 that apparently some were disappointed
… that I was just there being myself. Not acting! I am not a 55year old Obstetrician in an adulterous relationship with a illegitimate daughter who sings 60s rock songs to himself. Better start acting – funny walk, funny voice might help.
But his acting was never like that. He was one of those ‘working from the inside out’ actors – aspects of himself, facets of the man floated across the screen and the stage: Bille the statesman, Bille the buffoon, Bille the tender-hearted, the intelligent, the wit, the outsider. His presence and style and vulnerability are what made his creations so human and true. His keen observation of life and attention to detail showed in the work – his writing and performing.
In 2009 he was:
Amazed to be nominated for an AFI. Had no idea till my agent and the producers called with the news. Lot of my father in that character.
This was THREE ACTS OF MURDER in which he plays Ritchie, a dirtied up outback character. He clearly relished this role. It’s there for all to see – captured for us, and one to treasure as are his many screen performances – over 46 since 1997.
His filmography is much larger than I’d expected. Bille was such a man of the theatre that it’s easy to forget his screen work was so extensive. He’s appeared as saints and sinners – politicians and priests, cops, soldiers, judges, a magician, actors, bushmen … it’s an impressive range and tally. We’ve all got our favourites: mine are THE DISH and FIERCE CREATURES – he’s funny, outrageous and very real.
A week or so ago I saw one of his last movies on cable: KILLER ELITE. He’s Col Fitz, one of the back-room intelligence men – pulling the strings: fruity-voiced, club-tied, a bad ‘un. He wrote on the last day of shooting:
Got to drive a ghost grey Aston Martin through scattering leaves on wet asphalt up to an abandoned mansion and spoke through a scarred stiff upper lip (…) Then they checked the gate … (I) took off the tailor made suit and back into civvies to catch the tram home – another out of work, middle-aged, character man. I asked make-up to leave the fake scar.
That love of style and detail again and the self-awareness of the artist as ‘character man.’
Bille’s last movie SINGULARITY is currently in post-production. He plays a British Major during the Indian Raj. He must have adored his time there. He used FB at the time as a diary – his updates are tantalising, evocative:
To taste food in Shakespeare’s time you should eat authentic Indian food. Any actor wanting to know the buzz of an Elizabethan London street – walk at sunset through the market squares of Orchha – great houses and hovels rub walls, and people throng, parade and pray – the sounds, the smells, the colours of humanity. I found a beautiful devotional prayer – wish I could share it with you now.
There are many, many more such snippets that provide a glimpse into the way Bille the actor drew creative sustenance and inspiration from his life.
He told me once that he aspired to being a journeyman actor but he was, of course, far more than that by the end. He’d become a master of the craft, a mentor and guide for many, especially young artists. He once told a group of my acting students in the 1990s that although he was often unwaged he was never ‘not working’ as an actor. He was then reading and studying Persian love poetry. Then this popped up in December 2009 on FB:
Spent yesterday afternoon with Persian musicians, improvising traditional music and telling tales of Mullah Nasruddin and of Sohrab and Rustam – ah Brizzy what an unexpected old town!
Work took him round the globe, but it was to Queensland and to Brisbane – which he loved – that he always returned. This was his place. May 2010:
Considering an offer from San Francisco and a return to Italy but so loving being in the old house in Brisbane’s bright winter and the velvet rumble of horses hooves from Eagle Farm on a frosty morning.
Bille loved a good yarn – he was a professional tale-teller after all. He could keep you entertained for hours – and there are many to tell about this man. He is already missed greatly for we have lost one of our own. We mourn not only for him but for the great roles on stage and screen that we thought were to come, and for the plays that will never now be written.
This from November 2008 –
Wish there was an actor’s or artists bar in Brisbane – is there?
If there were to be one, if someone were to create such a thing, then that might just be a nice, snug place for us to gather and to go on telling stories.
With love and fond memories
4 February, 2013 – Brisbane