It was January 1941, and Australia was at war. Australian Troops were fighting the Italians in the Middle East . The rats had just taken Tobruk, and were being praised for their heroism and courage. The Japanese were claiming the western Pacific as their own. Although they were limiting that claim to speeches rather than to deeds. There were flattering references to Theodore Roosevelt in the newspapers, the United States had not yet entered the war, although their favoritism was clear. It was pre Pearl Harbour and six months before the Nazi invasion of Russia.
At home, some confusion was evident. Suspicion of communism battled with bitter fear of fascism. Herald correspondent Helen Simmons wrote, whilst castigating the maritime workers for their overtime demands. ‘Either one is for Britain and freedom or one is for Hitler and bondage.’ The ties between Britain and Australia were being reinforced and fostered. Whilst the troublesome Irish Australian population were being warned that their neutral homeland was at risk from Nazism too.
People turned to religion for comfort in those dark days. Local Bishops were given column space in the papers so that their words of encouragement and faith could be propagated to the population. Public lectures by churchmen were common. Bishop Burgmann of Goulburn preached at the Lyceum saying,
‘Truth and justice and love are the real and abiding qualities of life. The human race is one family. All wars are civil wars.’
Entertainment was another comfort. It was also a distraction from the insecurity of day to day life. Dances at the Paddington Town Hall and other local halls were well patronised. Motion pictures were another source of entertainment. Gone with the Wind was playing at the Victory, Charlie Chaplin was on screen, Laurence Olivier was still just mister, and Vivien Leigh was one of the most famous English women in the world.
Live theatre therefore had a great deal of competition for the entertainment dollar. Production of live theatre had stalled because of the war. Importation of scenery, sets and costumes was difficult because of the conditions. The usual international stars were not available either because of war commitments or travelling restrictions. The competition, particularly from radio and film was intense.
The theatres relied on revivals to overcome these problems. A revival reused old sets and costumes. It also created a sense of pre war nostalgia which appealed to a war time population. The Theatre Royal in Sydney revived a lot of light fare such as Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and plays such as The Student Prince, to entertain it’s patrons at this time.
It was at this time of crisis and insecurity that Marie Ney visited Sydney and played a season at the Theatre Royal. Marie Ney had been born in England but brought as a young child to New Zealand. She began her acting career in that country and continued it in Australia. After several years of performing in those two countries she followed the traditional path and moved to England. Whilst there, she acted at the Old Vic and with many famous English actors such as Michael Redgrave and Robert Donat. She was active in British Actors Equity, a collector of art and a lover of books. In many ways she was typical of Australians and New Zealanders of the time who considered themselves more British than Australasian. She was not a major actress, but she was a significant one. Her Australian ties made her an obvious choice when the Williamson company were looking for an actress to import for an Australian season. Marie was in Malaya with her husband, Thomas Menzies, when she was asked by representatives of the company to tour.
Her visit to Australia was a mixture of propaganda and art. A common mix for the day. She appealed to the sense of Australian nationalism which was growing throughout the period of the World War Two and emphasised the ties that bound Australia to the motherland in it’s time of need. She also spent a great deal of time advocating live theatre production in Australia. An advocacy perhaps explained by her involvement with Actors Equity.
During a radio talk to England organised by the Australian information ministry, Miss Ney spoke on these themes. She said that " Australia is making splendid war efforts on all sides. These efforts might be reciprocated by giving help needed here to carry out in the Theatre all I believe there is to be done.’
In the same broadcast she praised the English people for their bravery.
‘The unfailing good cheer and courage and calm shown by the King and Queen, the men, women and children of Britain…is an inspiration to those of us who are far away from you.’
January 25th 1941 was her opening night at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. It was a wet night. It rained so hard that the Sydney streets were little more than puddles. Taxies were so scarce that the star of the show had difficulty getting to the theatre. A large crowd gathered outside the Royal in preparation for what promised to be a gala evening.
The Sydney Morning Herald blamed the rain for the ‘unspectacular’ dressing of the audience. Perhaps the patrons were trying to show some sensitivity to the times by dressing simply. None the less the occasional fur rubbed shoulders with the many raincoats worn by the crowd. The ladies wore floral prints and those who preferred a single colour, wore white.
The spectacular Theatre Royal did not dress down for any reason. Neither war, depression nor rain could dampen it’s grandeur. It’s large auditorium and beautiful setting maintained it’s pre war glamour.
Miss Ney, supported by American actor Hal Thompson and Australian, Jane Conolly presented ‘No Time for comedy.’ A comedy with slight dramatic undertones. The play was set at the time of the Spanish Civil War and concerned a playwright, played by Thompson, who was between plays. The man faced a moral dilemma. How could he produce his usual light hearted entertainment during a time of war? A young predatory woman, Amanda, played by Conolly, proved to be his muse, whilst his wife, Linda, played by Marie Ney, fought the predator for her husband’s heart and mind. This at least was the synopsis provided by the Herald.
The aptness of the play’s underlying theme was not lost on the audience. The producers ensured this by placing a note in the programme. The note stated that the significance of the play was greater due to the fact that ‘we are all involved in a war.’ This seemed an unnecessary statement of the obvious.
The play consisted of three acts and the action took place in the rooms of New York apartments. Thus the sets required were minimal. The acts were punctuated by short intervals. During these, the Theatre Royal trio entertained the patrons. They played light opera melodies including the Viennese Waltz, Bolero and the Londonderry Air.
Miss Ney delighted audience and critics alike with her performance. She acted with charm and vivacity and according to the Herald critic had ‘ a fine presence and excellent technique’. The supporting cast was equally well received. Hal Thompson was described as ‘a distinct discovery’, whilst the young Jane Conolly ‘was most effective as the beautiful, shrewd, and soulfully sincere, Amanda.’
The capacity house loudly applauded the efforts of all involved with the production. At the conclusion of the play, Miss Ney , stepping over a carpet of flowers, paid her own tribute to the Australians involved.
‘This is an all Australian production of which you should all be proud.’
Miss Ney continued to perform ‘No time for comedy’, for four weeks. It was followed by the company performing Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’. This was followed by the play, ‘Ladies in retirement.’ A three month engagement, which followed a similar season in Melbourne.
It was a gala season in the midst of a gloomy time. Marie Ney brought a touch of pre war glamour to a theatre starved Sydney.