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Wilson, Ralph Campbell (1917–1994)

by Anne Nugent

There are at least 1000 Ralph Wilson stories — like the one of Ralph as a young teacher walking from Sydney to Melbourne, in order to get the "feel" for the Australian history classes he was teaching. Wilson always plunged into whatever he was doing.

For close on 40 years, he made an unmistakable mark on Canberra's educational and cultural scenes. But it is his work as theatre director which stands as a monument to the man. Wilson brought to a profound intellectual vigour, subtle psychological insight, vast erudition and textual sympathy to his interpretation of classic and modern plays.

Not many people have a theatre named after them while they are living as he did. The Ralph Wilson Theatre at Gorman House Arts Centre was the scene of many luminous Wilson productions. Strindberg's A Ghost Sonata, Ibsen's The Wild Duck with Julian and Lucy Owen, Beckett's Rockaby with Naone Carrell, and most recently directed from his sickbed, Beckett's Footfalls with Lisa Angove and Joyce Glynn are some of the Rawil productions at that venue.

Ralph Wilson was born in Newcastle in 1917, the son of a Scots schoolmaster father and a Swedish mother. A brilliant student of languages in his matriculation year at Newcastle Boys High, he topped the state in German, was second in French, and third in Latin. He took a teachers scholarship to the University of Sydney where he began his passionate involvement in theatre. Australian theatre in the '40s was the preserve of the left wing and so at that time Wilson mixed in union and communist party circles in the name of theatre. However he maintained a life-long suspicion of politics. In 1949, he married Antonia Veen in Sydney, and in 1954 they moved to Canberra, where Wilson initially taught at Telopea Park School.

Of all cultural eras, German Romanticism and the poets of that period appealed most strongly to Wilson. But it is really not possible to tie him to any one era, or to any one field in the arts. He was steeped in German, French and Russian literature, as well as movements in European (and Australian) art. Cinema was another passion, and he would view the films by European film makers — new wave Italian, French, German and particularly Russian, frame by frame, on a small editing projector he had at home. As he searched out the underlying structure (always an obsession with Wilson the director), he would commit each frame to his prodigious memory.

As a teacher in the NSW State Teaching Service, and later as deputy principal and principal of Canberra High School from 1969 to his retirement at the end of 1982, his memory for names and faces daunted students, staff and pupils. Once coded, he never forgot a name or a face.

Remembering people was not just a mental trick — for Wilson, it was an expression of his great humanity, his great interest in people, and in the minutest happening of everyday life. When Wilson discovered the novels of Patrick White he was so excited that he decided to commit the whole of the The Tree of Man to memory — perhaps he did not complete the self-imposed task — but the wish is a measure of Wilson's great, generous, encompassing spirit.

As a young man, he attended the first exhibition of Sidney Nolan's paintings in Sydney. Wilson was blown away and immediately spent the equivalent of three months salary purchasing a canvas. Later, (Wilson would say too late), he realised the genius of Arthur Boyd.

Wilson introduced world theatre shaping playwrights to the Australian stage. Four or five plays by the Polish writer Witkiewicz were given their first productions in Australia by Wilson, as was early Pinter.

It seems that the visionary Strindberg spoke to Wilson directly, perhaps the Swedish part of Wilson's genetic make-up recognised the darkness in the playwright's soul.

But it is for his interpretations of Beckett that Wilson stands head and shoulders above others. He was producing Beckett plays in Canberra as early as 1955 (All That Fall).

I will never forget his production, again with Harry Schmidt as actor, of Beckett's Eh Joe, presented at a conference on Beckett at the ANU. For a director who gave so many crystal moments this was a peak, Schmidt's head shimmering in a rectangle of light in a wall of darkness. Wilson was always preoccupied with the text — costumes and sets were given scant attention in his productions. However, lighting was a different matter, and again Wilson drew on European influences. In particular, his study of Rembrandt's art influenced his lighting schemes.

Wilson led a bifurcated life. By day he was principal, of Canberra High School, and at night he was theatre director. The rehearsals, which would often continue into the early hours of the morning, gave rise to many stories — once Wilson in a directorial trance fell from the stage and broke his arm — the rehearsal continued and the broken arm was only discovered when the rehearsal was over.

Wilson never travelled, except to Sydney or Melbourne for some play he did not want to miss. For someone so steeped in European culture, travel seems a strange exception. Although Wilson was offered study tours to Europe, Russia and Japan — he declined: he knew it all, he said, "vicariously".

It is also strange that Wilson did not employ his outstanding talents to make a professional career in theatre. Rather he chose to use his talents when and where he was — in Canberra from the '50s to the '90s.

In hindsight, it is obvious that his choice was the measure of the man and his great, humanistic approach to life. Wilson always made his investment in people. Director George Ogilvie was saved from his family business by Wilson's encouragement of his theatre talents. Musician-composer Jim Cotter is equally indebted to Wilson's formative influence.

Music was another of Wilson's passions. Wilson had an awesome knowledge of classical music, but he never fell into the trap of being tied to one period. Nevertheless, he was reputed to have roared at people who dismissed one of his favourites, the English composer Vaughan Williams. Later in life, his taste moved towards contemporary music.

The theatre was Wilson's world, and it was also his conscience. There, he struggled with the great questions of right and wrong, of purpose and meaning. There, filtered through Wilson's questing intelligence, the ideas of Dostoevski, Freud, and the German Romantics (all crucial influences in Wilson's intellectual landscape), did battle with those overwhelming questions.

Wilson, who so loved German literature and culture, was devastated by the horror of Hitler and Nazi Germany. With many other thinkers in the latter half of the 20th century, Wilson asked himself how could such a dictator come to power in such a civilised nation? The implications of that question (the meaning of what it is to be human) were never far from Wilson's theatre stage.

Wilson's was a hungering spirit linked to a tremendous energy. He produced over 200 plays for the Canberra stage, running to 11 productions in some years.

Gogol's The Government Inspector with Julian Owen; Chekhov's Uncle Vanya with Rod Charls and Ron Hill; Beckett's End Game with Peter Robinson, Valeska Stewart and Ken Gardiner; his Christian Brothers with John Cuffe; and his powerful production of Brecht's Mother Courage with Liz Bradley and Merril Cook at the Playhouse, are but a few of Wilson's outstanding productions (there were also some failures).

With Phillip Mackenzie, he founded the Classical Theatre Ensemble in the 1980s. The Ensemble staged Tartuffe; The Country Wife, and Lysistrata among other classics. Wilson was a great mentor.

He was always searching out plays for young talents, and drawing others along in his train. And there was his troop of older actors, particularly Bill Cumpsty in his many walk-on roles.

The latest Rawil production, the rehearsed play-reading of Patrick White's play Netherwood, was performed at the Street Theatre last Monday.

Wilson devoured literature, conversations, music, film, and art, and classical history. On an idle Sunday, he could be found with theatre companions on the lawns of the ANU Staff Club discussing the virtues of a shiraz over a cabernet sauvignon, and the more abstruse points of European theatre. He had no peer in judging the finer points of malt Scotch Whisky; he knew every malt out of Scotland.

In 1988, against Wilson's own wish, but with the insistence and support of his friends, he was awarded the Order of Australia. In the same year, the Ralph Wilson Theatre was named for him, a tribute which delighted the director — here, in his retirement, was his very own playhouse.

That venue saw many fine Wilson productions — Ron Hill, in the Wilson-directed Strategy for Two Hams by French playwright Raymond Cousse, Phil Roberts in Whale Nation, and Harry Schmidt's last performance of Jack Hibberd's A Stretch of the Imagination — a remarkable realisation of character by director Wilson and the actor.

It was Wilson's wish that no obituary be written. When asked why by his son Kyle, Wilson replied, "I wanted to achieve so much more...".

His friends and colleagues who know his immense contribution to theatre, education and cultural life of Canberra, simply marvel at Wilson's prodigious achievements.

They remember with affection the beetle-browed man, his penetrating eyes looking out with a great warm compassion and an intense soul-searching sharpness from beneath his craggy forehead.

Ralph Wilson is survived by his widow Toni, son Kyle, daughter Harriette, daughter-in-law Judith Loy, and grandchildren Sophie and Sam.

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Anne Nugent, 'Wilson, Ralph Campbell (1917–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/wilson-ralph-campbell-28123/text36399, accessed 23 May 2019.

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