Theatre

The Presence of Frank Thring

No scribe in the stalls has ever quite matched the Melbourne actor’s brief turn as a theatre reviewer for the long-departed Argus newspaper. A small taste: “Writhing onto the stage,” he wrote of one production’s dancers, they treated the audience to “the agonised twistings of a run-over cat”

frank thringThe theatre critic had already played Sheridan Whiteside on stage. When he began his short writing career he became his own Kaufman and Hart:

Mr Kenneth Thornett who in an unwonted fit of whimsy has disguised himself as a Toby Jug … Miss Maree Marsden really looks so lovely in her last gown that she almost convinces us that she is acting too. The Misses Henry and Bevege should be awarded a small box of throat pastilles each for being the proud possessors of the most irritating voices heard in Australia since the last appearance of the Andrews sisters.

The play he had collided with was a Victorian comedy. “Charley’s Aunt is just too old” said the headline. Today (May 2018) the young reviewer might be off to the Wharf Theatre in Sydney to see the ego-drama Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story—standing room only after receiving tumultuous platitudes from the critics.

Michael Connor’s columns appear in every edition of Quadrant.
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Frank Thring was twenty-eight when, in January, 1955, he became a guest critic for the Melbourne Argus. Having seen Charley’s Aunt on opening night and at a matinee later in the season, he noticed how “members of the cast succumbed to the temptation to exchange private jokes on stage”. Times have changed. Now it is our subsidised theatre companies who mess with the words. Admitting they would be out of their depth playing classic dramas they commission (taxpayers pay) safer, cruder adaptations. Audiences buy the familiar authors and titles and are served crude phoniness.

Thring was already famous, in Melbourne, for being Frank Thring. As a critic he wasn’t fair, he wasn’t reasonable, and, to his victims, he was unforgivably funny. The son of a wealthy dead film-maker, Frank Thring Junior was large, effete, and rather scary. Those iron window bars on his Toorak mansion, it was said, were to keep people in, not out—it seemed believable. He was witty, cruelly funny and spoke with a licentious and breathy lisp that was beyond affectation. He was frightening, yet amusingly self-mocking. His pleasure in being Frank Thring was obvious, and audiences shared the delight, at a safe distance. He was the source of many, usually bad, vocal imitations. He dressed with ostentation. On stage he revealed a genuinely captivating presence. In hometown interviews he revealed a shared delight in Melbourne with his suburban audiences.

His performance as Pontius Pilate in the 1959 Hollywood epic Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston created several stories—which change slightly depending on the teller—attributed to Thring. The great chariot race was staged, the dust was settling and a tired voice was heard on the speaker system, “Would Pontius Pilate please remove his sunglasses.” Or his reply when he returned home and was asked how he liked Ben-Hur: “Loved him, hated her.”

Thring was universally suspected of unspeakable perversions but remained a loved Melbourne perv and the city crowned him King of Moomba—crown and robes from Melbourne Theatre Company workshops. While it lasted he leered affectionately at his subjects, while grasping his sceptre with provocative authority. The following year Dame Edna Everage, from a lesser suburb, was Queen Mother to Daryl Somers’s King.

This regal fame was over thirty years in the future when, in 1951, Thring used his mother’s money to transform an old theatre in Middle Park and relaunch it as the Arrow. On opening night, he was a very good Herod in Wilde’s Salome. And his mother came too: “no one missed the clever gesture of Mrs Olive Thring, mother of director Frank W. Thring, who wore a deep taffetas gown with chartreuse stole and matching gloves, in exactly the same tones of the Arrow décor”.

That ancient ladies-page prose reappeared this year in adoration of actress Cate Blanchett. At the Cannes Film Festival she wore an expensive frock she had worn once before. For the empty-headed wealthy this was newsworthy. Eco-Age, “a specialist sustainability and communications consultancy” reported it with reverence. It was serious, and so was Blanchett:

In the fast and furious cycle of fashion, the culture of re-wearing is critical to reform. Although it’s often suggested that it’s easy to re-wear something on the red carpet, in practice it can be more difficult to track down a piece, store it, and get ready for a major fashion outing than to create a new piece. It takes skill and dedication.

“From couture to T-shirts, landfill is full of garments that have been unnecessarily discarded. Particularly in today’s climate, it seems wilful and ridiculous that such garments are not cherished and re-worn for a lifetime,” says Cate Blanchett.

The Arrow was amateur, with quasi-professional standards. In the Little Theatre tradition it offered a repertory of old and modern plays. There was a belief and pride in a certain idea of theatre as having a responsibility to produce theatre that was entertaining, tasteful and well created. The coming new elitist theatre would cast such ideals disdainfully aside. Plays staged over the life of the theatre included Wilde’s Salome, Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix too Frequent and Venus Observed, Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Patrick Hamilton’s Rope, Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can’t Take it With You, Australian Ralph Peterson’s The Square Ring, Shakespeare’s Othello and Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon. When the brave attempt was forced to close, Frank Doherty, the regular theatre critic at the Argus, was angry that audiences had not flocked to the Arrow:

We of this city ARE smug—and certainly apathetic and indifferent—in our feeling for and treatment of the theatre. We stand on a pedestal of self-satisfaction and declare our love for the theatre when by “the theatre” we mean either straightforward variety, a flashy farce with the appeal to an audience of teenagers or a visit—more social than anything else—to see an overseas artist (preferably one who has appeared in films).

Modern audiences ARE smug, and so are the theatre-makers. What they mean by “the theatre” is completely different from Doherty’s list. Notice that he was writing of “we of this city”. The “we” of current small theatre audiences are members of an elitist estate snobbishly self-exiled from contact with the remnants of what was imagined to be an all-encompassing democratic entity.

When Doherty was writing, the popular audi­ences for theatre, people who once liked to see a show, had already gone to the pictures. A few years later they would stay home and watch television, or turn out for a big day out at the MCG—scalding pies, no theatrical ham, no foreign stars and, until lately, no preaching. Doherty defended a theatrical tradition from philistine audiences, not knowing that in the future the philistines would be the theatre-makers, and bureaucrats who control the cash and dictate the content. Hidden from his sight was a theatre whose most interesting productions are its balance sheets. The traditional theatre he defended lives on in amateur theatre—though it dies a little whenever drama education makes its influence felt.

When Griffin Theatre’s director Lee Lewis introduced plays for the 2018 season her words, and those of the journalist covering the PR event, were decorated with stale mid-twentieth-century references to “angry” writers, forever breaking “new waves”, and the unending cultural insecurity of having to mention, and lock between inverted commas, an “Australian voice”. The conventional fem-plays she was selling deal with climate change, “housing-affordability and homelessness”, youth medication, and “a beautiful speculation about how a young woman finds her voice”:

Lewis describes these four as part of a new wave of Australian writers who are “angry, and not content with the status quo. And they are brought up on Australian playwrights; they are not seeking to find an ‘Australian voice’—they have it, they take it for granted, and they are using it in really sophisticated theatrical ways.”

The final, fifth play in the season is an adaptation of Molière’s Misanthrope—with a female lead (naturally). Male imagination has left the country, its place taken by boring feminist cant.

Thring’s Arrow seated 200 people, the Griffin holds about 100. Plays at the Arrow were performed on a repertory system of three-week seasons and the business goal, an impractical ideal, was to entice a total audience of 3600 paying customers for each production. The Griffin, like other left-wing theatres and production companies supported by Coalition funding, receives four-year funding of $300,000 each year. This is the same as La Mama in Melbourne, recently gutted by an electrical fire, which holds about forty-five people. The Arrow failed, and was closed. Thring complained that audiences only wanted “superficial nonsense” and headed off to London. He hired a theatre and performed his Salome. They liked it. Then he came home. The present Australia Council grant Griffin receives is less than they were receiving some years ago. When the newer funding changes were made they didn’t sell lamingtons or stage more plays to raise money but cut back their 2017 productions from five to four plays and “lost two full-time staff positions”. A theatre which seats 100 has full-time staff?

Sharp-tongued Thring, said the Argus, was the best of all possible choices to answer the questions audiences wanted to ask. “Are the so-called stars who come here has-beens? Is there more ham on the Melbourne stage than in the Victoria Market? Do we have genuine talent and where is it? Who is it?” “Thring will be pungent,” the Argus promised on January 4, 1955, and it kept its word. The newspaper served a popular readership. Its usual reporting gave the impression that it and its readers shared similar, urban Australian concerns. Its attitude to theatrical affectations was friendly, mocking, affection. Thring’s reviews promised reader entertainment and a nice summer boost to sales.

Thring cut and slashed and the letter-writers did their duty. They complained about the “bully” or cheered him on. Colonel H.F. Hayward, of Valley Parade, Glen Iris, bravely stormed the newspaper office. He gave the journalists a story and a headline—“And the Colonel said, ‘Bad liver’.”

La Vie Parisienne showcased showgirls and French singer Jean Sablon: “really very little one can say about him except that unlike children he should be heard and not seen”. And of the girls, “there is of course the inevitable presentation of living pictures which in this case appears to be not so much an exhibition of Old Masters as of Old Mistresses”. Thring’s advice was sound though surprising considering the source:

The management must tell their nudes to suntan all over or not at all as a pair of snow white bosoms protruding between a brown neck and a pale pink stomach is hardly likely to excite anyone under 90.

Hobart theatres take note.

He liked Paint Your Wagon, though perhaps one comment may have had a more personal meaning to the actor concerned than readers realised:

I was unaware that Miss Elizabeth Arden was running a branch in California in 1853. Mr Richard Curry, however, was clever enough to find one and apparently bought up the entire stock of eye-shadow, which he has applied by much the same method as one ices a cake.

A holiday pantomime suffered a memorable review—perhaps the shortest in our theatrical history?

THE THEATRE: The Tivoli

THE SHOW: “Jack and Jill”

THE CAST: Roy Barbour, Nina Cooke, John Bluthal, Ivor Bromley

THE CRITIC: The End!

His encounter with Colored Rhapsody and Britain’s “Mr Heart Throb”, David Hughes, left a mushroom cloud cutting for theatrical scrapbooks:

Like the H-bomb Mr Hughes is one of the menaces of modern civilisation. With the calculated and nauseating charm of a precocious child, he alternately bellows and moans through a morass of sticky sentimentalities culminating in a terrifying example of commercialised religion.

All however is not sweetness and light.

There are five of the worst-dressed, most unoriginal dance routines that it has ever been my misfortune to witness, and, adding insult to the almost insufferable injury, is the nerve-shattering voice of Irene Evans, which has much the same effect as a nail on a piece of tin.

To compensate for this torture we have been given the Norma Miller dancers.

Writhing on to the stage with the agonised twistings of a run-over cat, Miss Miller leads her team to heights of animal intensity that have rarely been scaled before.

The frenzied bodies, ranging in color from cocoa to soot, transcend the duties of a mere dance team, and together with the superbly played drums become an emotional experience which is worth the price of admission alone.

And that is just as well: because slowly, with the inevitability of death, comes Mr David Hughes.

Actually, death came to David Hughes himself in 1972. Perhaps he had heeded Thring’s review, for he had switched from pop to classic. Singing Pinkerton during a performance of Madama Butterfly, he collapsed on stage. Temporarily recovering, he was able to complete the performance but died the next day.

Thring was more open to the charms of Johnny Ray: “Ray! He’s got me swooning”:

Wrapping himself around the microphone like a python with rickets, he laid the large audience in St Kilda Palais Theatre’s lushly carpeted aisles.

Draped in grey silk and spattering sweat and tears with the abandon of one of the larger Versailles fountains, he lost his shoes, fell into the footlights, drank glasses of water to replenish his rapidly dehydrating body, and finally flung himself into the octopus arms of the screaming teenagers.

Taking his seat at the National Theatre for the Merchant of Venice, Thring was told the curtain would stay down if he remained. After this public excommunication by theatre grandees he dived into the ensuing publicity as the Argus editorialised in virile capitals: “THE ‘NATIONAL’ HAS MADE A MISTAKE WHICH IT MUST NEVER REPEAT IF IT IS TO JUSTIFY ITS GOVERNMENT GRANT.”

Thring was practical, personal and un-academic:

I would like to point out that an actor sells not only his body but also his voice, his movements, and his mind to the general public for the price of a theatre ticket. If any of these personal qualities fall below the expected standard then it is the critic’s job to point it out and the public’s job to reject that artist as it would any other shoddy article.

Those words would have been read and approved by newspaper readers who had not yet been intimi­dated into holding back their opinions when faced with elitist-approved art.

The professionals may have been offended by Thring’s reviews but amateurs saw a chance for publicity. Telegram to Thring: “Request pleasure of your presence. Guarantee no throw-outs Wednesday Thursday next, cast of ‘Tell Me The Truth’, Ferntree Gully Reps.” The play was an American farce with spinsters, a drunk (male), undertakers and a family will.

A month later he was on the wireless—nightly at 6.30 on 3XY, “Thring with his Candidly Caustic Comments”. But his time as guest critic ended and he was preparing to make an exit. His mother had died the year before. After auctioning her jewellery, paintings and furniture, and finding time to appear on stage in The Prisoner, he left Australia, for the time being.

Instead of quietly disappearing—and it must have really annoyed his new enemies—he joined Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in Peter Brook’s production of Titus Andronicus at Stratford, and got good reviews. He also married—it had a predictably short run—and at year’s end the frightening critic was frightening London tots as Captain Hook in Peter Pan. It had been a very good year—for Thring, and his audiences.

6 comments
  • Lacebug

    can you imagine Thring getting away with his witty reviews in this era of perpetual offence?

  • Jody

    I’m certain Thring modelled himself on Alfred Hitchcock. Take another look; he even has the same shaped face and corpulent stature. The old thief was only ever a super-sized Christmas ham of the ostentatiously gay variety and, like Gore Vidal, should NEVER have been taken seriously. This kind of breathless, Wildean pomposity only thinly disguised a sneering hatred.

    A good read all the same.

    • Lacebug

      Yes, he was of the same ilk as Bernard King “Young man, your diction is atrocious!”

      • Jody

        “Young man”? That’s a bridge too far.

        • Lacebug

          That was one of Bernard’s famous criticisms on Pot of Gold. Surely one of the greatest TV shows of all time.

          • Jody

            Some of his slashing comments and witticisms were notable: “the dog gets a point for doing on four legs what it normally does on three” and the classic rebuff after a New Zealand cultural team spinning poys (one of them lost the grip and the poy ended up across the other side of the studio)…”the act lacked poise”!!!

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