Tuesday, March 8, 2022



Curated by Dr Susannah Helman, NLA Curator of Rare Books and Music

National Library Of Australia to 7 August 2022


Reviewed by Len Power 3 March 2022


For anyone interested in theatre and Australian history, the National Library of Australia’s new exhibition ‘On Stage: Spotlight On Our Performing Arts’ is a delight.


Drawing exclusively from the collections of the National Library, the exhibition features items that have never before been on display.  Highlights include the earliest surviving Australian printed document, selections from the JC Williamson theatre archives, and other contemporary live music and theatre posters.  It features household names like Sir Robert Helpmann, Dame Nellie Melba, Peter Allen, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Tim Minchin and the Hilltop Hoods.

Hilltop Hoods Performing at the Big Day Out, Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, 28 January 2008 Photo by Martin Philbey

The curator, Dr Susannah Helman, has undertaken the formidable job of selecting items from the vast store of Australian theatre artifacts held by the library to give a rich and fascinating picture of the history of theatre in this country.  Deciding what to include and what to leave out must have been very difficult.


This large, clearly designed and attractively presented exhibition is on show in a number of connecting rooms in the National Library.  Commencing with items from ‘Early Colonial Times’, it moves on to ‘Gold Rush To Federation’, ‘Federation To the 1940s’, ‘Postwar To The New Wave’ and ‘New Wave To Today’.


As well as each item being clearly labelled and described, there are also QR codes that link you to videos providing even more information.  Don’t forget to bring your phone’s headphones.

Evie Hayes as Annie Oakley in the J.C. Williamson Production of Annie Get Your Gun, 1950 Photo by Hal Williamson

For those of us of a certain age, various items suddenly produce nostalgic memories of past theatre-going.  Clicking on a QR code, you can hear the great Evie Hayes again.  She starred in JC Williamson’s production of the musical, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’, back in the early 1950s and later worked in early television variety productions.  Another QR code gives you the much-loved honky tonk pianist, Winifred Atwell, playing ‘The Black And White Rag’.

Portrait of Winifred Atwell, 1950s Rimis Ltd, London

 As you work your way through this exhibition, you’ll quickly realize that one visit won’t be enough to absorb everything on view.  Luckily, admission to the exhibition is free and you’ll have until August to get back and see it again.


This review was first published in the Canberra CityNews digital edition of 5 March.


Len Power's reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 in the ‘Arts Cafe’ and ‘Arts About’ programs and published in his blog 'Just Power Writing' at https://justpowerwriting.blogspot.com/.