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Rex Roy Cramphorn (1941–1991)

Rex Cramphorn, one of the most innovative and under-realised theatre directors Australia has produced, died in Sydney early yesterday after a long, AIDS-related illness. He was 50.

Cramphorn (he dropped the final 'e' in the 1970s after deciding that his family had gentrified the name) was one of a group of directors who emerged nationally in the burgeoning new theatre of the '60s, among them George Ogilvie, John Tasker, Jim Sharman, Rodney Fisher, Brian Syron and Helmut Bakaitis, who in different fields led a revolution in our approach to and evaluation of theatre production. Of them all, Cramphorn was experimental to the end; but to the end he found only occasional satisfaction in the working conditions the Australian theatre provided.

For most of his life, he worked as a freelance director and designer. (He designed the costumes for the musical Jesus Christ Superstar and many of his own productions.) His most continuously creative period, however, was as resident director of the Playbox Theatre between 1981 and 1986 when he turned around the fortunes of the "corner store" company as he called it, with productions of Shakespeare, French classics and aggressive, modern American theatre.

Cramphorn's young talent was designed for a theatre either much richer or more single-minded than Australia had in the '60s. An admirer of the Polish theatre guru Jerzy Grotowski (with whom he worked during Grotowski's visit in 1972) and of the British guru Peter Brook, Cramphorn at his best could rival them both. But the Australian theatre had only a marginal place for someone who wanted a company of actors who worked and lived together, and who could spend as long as was necessary on developing a work to its fullest.

And yet despite the hostile environment his achievement was extraordinary. Educated at Brisbane Boys' High School, he held a BA Hons in French and English studies from the University of Queensland and MA in Drama from the University of NSW. He also graduated from NIDA in 1968. In 1969 he formed the Performance Syndicate as an unpaid workshop in the Grotowski mould aimed at developing actors' physical and mental skills and challenging the received view of theatre. Among the group were Nick Lathouris, David Cameron, Terry O'Brien and Gillian Jones; later came Robyn Nevin and Kate Fitzpatrick. Some of their performances have become legendary.

The group members worked with a variety of companies until 1976 when poverty finally got the better of them.

Cramphorn returned to freelance work, then joined Playbox. In 1986 he began a new career as a student at the Australian Film TV and Radio school. His graduation film The Pursued was shown recently. In recent years he has been involved in the theatre experiments of the Centre of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney. His last project for the centre was Moliere's Don Juan, earlier this year, with his long-time friend Kate Fitzpatrick.

With the death of Cramphorn the Australian theatre has lost one of its most challenging and sensitive talents. Those who worked with him in the Performance Syndicate, in A Shakespeare Company and in Melbourne count him as a formative influence. His range of remembered productions was wide. But if he had one quality that stood out it was his capacity to take a play and turn it into an object of contemplation, to penetrate its mystery so that it stayed in the mind long after the image faded.

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'Cramphorn, Rex Roy (1941–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 April 2024.

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