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Helpmann, Sir Robert Murray (1909–1986)

by Ken Healey

Robert Helpmann was the most gifted theatrical polymath to emerge in Australia this century. Among his peers in Britain and America only his friend and collaborator Noel Coward surpassed him; no-one else approached his range of achievement.

Dancer, choreographer, actor and director, he rose to the highest level in ballet, drama and opera. Even though most of his work was for the stage, there were notable contributions to television and especially to film.

He was a pupil of Pavlova, a colleague of Nureyev and mentor to a generation of dancers in London through the 1940s and to another in Australia in the 60s and 70s. Born in Mount Gambier, South Australia, on April 9, 1909, Robert Murray was the eldest of three Helpman children of a fourth-generation Australian mother.

His sister Sheila subsequently had a notable stage career in Australia, while brother Max became a distinguished Shakespearean actor at the Stratford, Ontario, Festival in Canada.

The Helpmans moved to Adelaide in 1914. Encouraged by his mother, Robert had become a professional by the age of 12, earning £4 a week in a summer revue.

His reserved father amazed everyone by packing him off as a 14-year-old to Melbourne to study with a young woman whose touring company had impressed father Helpman during one of his frequent absences from home.

She was Anna Pavlova. Robert took daily lessons with Laurent Novikoff and Harcourt Algeranoff for the duration of the Pavlova company's tour.

By 1926 he was working for J. C. Williamson's, for whom he toured New Zealand. He quickly came to regard himself as a star.

In what has become part of Australian showbusiness folk history, Minnie Everett, JCW's dancing mistress, told Robert, "You'll never be any good as a dancer," and demoted to understudy. At the age of 17 he had won back the lead for the Melbourne season, but that humiliation, and another off-stage, helped him to decide to build his career outside Australia.

Promenading along Bondi beach with a young lady, Bobbie was dumped in the surf by a group of lifesavers. They evidently objected to his painted nails, plucked eyebrows, pink shirt and purple tie.

In London in 1933 the Scottish Helpman was exchanged for the Germanic Helpmann. Robert soon became chief male dancer at Vic Wells, and partner of Margot Fonteyn. He stayed with the company until 1950.

One of Helpmann's biographers wrote, "His name will always be associated with the early history of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, and especially with the war years when, with the burden of almost the entire male repertory upon him, he brought an unflagging zest to every part."

He frequently danced nine programs a week, including three on Saturdays, whether he was suited to the roles or not. He was outstanding in the ballets of Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton. Among his triumphs were both Prince Florimund and Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, Dr Coppelius in Coppelia and Albrecht in Giselle.

Such a schedule would have exhausted another, but among other things, Helpmann choreographed Hamlet to Tchaikowsky's music (in 10 days) in 1942, and alternated with Paul Scofield in 1944 at the Old Vic in the title role of Shakespeare's play.

The double life in ballet and theatre was not artistically schizophrenic. Reviews of his ballets constantly commented on the strong dramatic content in his work.

He obtained the permission of Lilian Bayliss to play Oberon opposite Vivian Leigh in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and it is recalled that his lightness of voice and dancer's style of movement were his greatest assets in the part. Both were to cause him some later trouble in theatre.

In 1955 Helpmann returned to Australia as an actor, anxious to be accepted at home as something more than a dancer. He had a triumph.

With Katharine Hepburn in his company, he played Shylock to her Portia, Petrucchio to her Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and the Duke to her Isabella in Measure for Measure. Helpmann needed the success of that Australian tour, as his production of Coward's new musical, After the Ball, had just been an unexpected failure in London.

Most of the stories emanating from his Australian tour with Hepburn stem from her fascination with lyrebirds, which eventually led him to create the ballet, The Display (1964). Another friend and expatriate Australian, Malcolm Williamson, wrote the music.

Hepburn has written: "My friend of now and long ago is as hard to get close to as a porcupine. He seems easy and indiscreet, amiable and fun. He's sharp in every sense of the word. He's tough, he's loving, he's delicious to know. I can tell you what is at the core of him: 'I am going to do it'. And he does it."

No mention of Helpmann the man would be coherent without consideration of his relationship with producer Michael Benthall, 10 years his junior. In Helpmann's authorised biography, Elizabeth Salter wrote, "Ambition was his driving force, but the structure on which his life was based was his friendship with Michael Benthall."

She quotes Helpmann as saying, "Without emotion an artist cannot function ... Emotion influences me more than sex," and comments that on the surface this is an unlikely statement from the man who believed that ballet is a sexual art.

From 1951 Helpmann and Benthall lived together at Trevor Place in London. They had first met when Benthall was only 19. In 1944 he produced Helpmann's Hamlet, directed by Tyrone Guthrie.

Helpmann's years of freelance work from the mid-50s were full of brilliant, diverse activities.

There was a coast-to-coast American tour with Moira Shearer in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that finished at the Met; an Australian tour with the Royal Ballet in 1958-59; a revival of Frederick Ashton's Cinderella in the 1960s, with Ashton and Helpmann re-creating the roles of the ugly sisters that they had first danced in 1948. There was also a collaboration with Nijinska, sister of the immortal Nijinsky, in a production of The Sleeping Beauty (1960).

Helpmann worked surprisingly little in musicals, though he did direct Cameloi in London in 1964. In addition to Shakespearece, his early London acting had been in the plays of Shaw, and he had also directed some T. S. Eliot in London.

Another surprise is that he danced in only three of the many films in which he appeared. These were the two big ballet movies of the 50s, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, and Nureyev's Don Quixote (1973), which he co-directed and in which he danced the title role.

It is 21 years since Helpmann returned to make his home in Australia. With Peggy van Praag he formed the Australian Ballet in 1965. The younger members of the company stood in awe of the great thespian as they awaited his first appearance. He swept in under a load of costume jewelry and banished the tension with, "Hello darlings, it's your new mum."

Sun Music, to Peter Sculthorpe's score, was among his new ballets for the company. There was also the Japanese-influenced Yugen. In 1970 he directed the Adelaide Festival. It seemed that the decade of his 60s would be uniquely fruitful for him and the company that he was modelling on the Royal Ballet.

But the 1970s brought a period of fundamental change to Australian theatre. It began with the rise of playwrights like David Williamson, Jack Hibberd and Alex Buzo and quickly spread to all the performing arts.

A new Australian voice was asserting itself in theatre. The effect on Helpmann was similar to that on Coward when John Osborne's Look Back In Anger stormed London in 1956.

Coward, universally referred to as the Master, and Helpmann, the antipodean master, were not of this generation. They neither liked nor understood its products.

Fittingly, honours had been bestowed on Helpmann while his kind of theatre still reigned. His knighthood in 1968 followed a CBE in 1964 and a Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award in 1953. Helpmann's knighthood was speeded because he returned home; Coward was forced to wail until 1970 for his, because he persisted in living abroad.

The nadir in Helpmann's personal and professional life came in 1974. Michael Benthall died and Peggy van Praag was hospitalised with arthritis. At the end of the year, Dame Peggy resigned and left Helpmann as sole artistic director of the Australian ballet.

Six week later, barely a month before the premiere of Helpmann's most glittering triumph for the company, the board of the Australian Ballet sacked him. He was seen as yesterday's man.

It was a case of irreconcilable views of ballet. Helpmann said that he did not agree with those prepared to dispense with wonderful decor and wonderful costumes. Others saw his ballet as museum theatre.

In November, 1975, a date with deeper resonances in Australian history, Helpmann had his greatest success with a triumphal opening at the Sydney Opera House of The Merry Widow.

The work summed up his philosophy of theatre, namely that its main purpose is to entertain. It was neither relevant nor contemporary, but it made money for the company.

It is equally to the credit of Australia and her gifted son that he has been welcomed back into ballet, opera and legitimate theatre during the past 10 years.

He was dancing the role of the Red King in the ballet Checkmate when he was forced into hospital with respiratory problems in July this year. He was soon discharged, rejoined the Australian Ballet in Adelaide, and was disappointed that he was not allowed to perform again immediately.

As director and choreographer of Alcina he brought together for the Australian opera Joan Sutherland and Handel. She had first come to notice in London in the late 1950s with Handel's "Let the Bright Seraphim", but had not been heard in Australia as a Handelian singer.

Sydney and its theatre critics showed how much they had grown up when they greeted with unmixed affection Hermann's appearance in October, 1983, for the Sydney Theatre Company as old "Bosey", a sort of narrator, in a locally written play about Oscar Wilde and Lord Afred Douglas called The Cobra.

The old man was not especially good, but Sydney welcomed him for what he had done. This was the man whose bronze bust in the role of Don Quixote stands at the entrance to the Sydney Opera House library, and whose portrait by Judy Cassab is hung in the southern foyer of the Opera Theatre. There is a little-boy smile playing at the edges of his lips.

Robert Helpmann lived long enough to rejoice in the knowledge that Australia has reached a stage of theatrical maturity where his kind of work can win audiences beside those of Graeme Murphy, in dance, Stephen Sewell in theatre and Richard Meale at the Australian Opera. He wrote his own testament when he told his authorised biographer, "Theatre remains the only thing I understand.... It is in the community of the theatre that I have my being. In spite of jealousies and fears, emotional conflicts and human tensions; in spite of the penalty of success and the dread of failure; in spite of tears and feverish gaiety, this is the only life I know. It is a life of love."

His public life seems hardly less than a pageant that began with a legendary meeting with Ninette de Valois, who said to the newest member of her corps de ballet, "I can do something with that face."

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 29 September 1986, p 2

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Citation details

Ken Healey, 'Helpmann, Sir Robert Murray (1909–1986)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/helpmann-sir-robert-murray-12620/text35250, accessed 26 August 2019.

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