Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wilkie, Allan (1878–1970)

by John Rickard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Allan Wilkie, by May and Mina Moore, c1910-13

Allan Wilkie, by May and Mina Moore, c1910-13

tate Library of Victoria, H38782/1049

Allan Wilkie (1878-1970), actor-manager, was born on 9 February 1878 at Toxteth Park, Lancashire, England, son of James John McKinlay Wilkie, engineer, and his wife Mary Kate, née Bowyer. Educated at Liverpool High School, as a young man Allan worked in a merchant's office, but he was so inspired by the performances of Osmond Tearle that he decided to embrace 'the free, spacious, romantic life of the Shakespearean actor'. Moving to London, he became an understudy and soon graduated to roles in touring companies, including that of Beerbohm Tree. On 4 February 1904 at All Saints parish church, Kensington, London, Wilkie married Iné de la Garde Cameron, a 21-year-old actress. Disdainful of the genteel theatre of the West End, at 27 he launched his own touring company. His first Shakespearian venture was The Merchant of Venice, a play that was to be associated with his name. A divorcee, on 22 July 1909 at the register office, Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire, he married Frediswyde Hunter-Watts (d.1951), a 22-year-old actress in his company who soon became his leading lady.

In 1911 Wilkie seized an opportunity to take his company to India; over the next two years he also played in Ceylon, Singapore, Malaya, China, Japan and the Philippines. Returning to England, he accepted an invitation to join a company in South Africa: he and his wife were there at the outbreak of World War I and decided to travel to Australia where Frediswyde had relations.

Having toured New Zealand with Nellie Stewart in 1915, Wilkie and Hunter-Watts were invited by entrepreneur George Marlow to head a Shakespearian company which launched a season at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne in January 1916. As very little Shakespeare had been professionally performed in Australia for a generation, local actors were inexperienced in it; nevertheless, boosted by vice-regal patronage, the season was a success and led to a national tour. Wilkie ambitiously launched his own 'permanent' Shakespearian company in September 1920 and challenged theatrical superstition by opening with Macbeth. This production, with its stylish, simplified staging which enabled the play to be given with only one brief interval, had considerable impact. By 1924 the company had totted up one thousand consecutive performances and he earned a commendation from Prime Minister Stanley (Viscount) Bruce for 'performing a duty of a national character'. Next year Wilkie was appointed C.B.E. In 1926, after a fire at Geelong destroyed the company's sets and costumes, a public appeal was launched to save 'a national institution' and raised almost £3000.

Faced with the difficulty of finding a theatre in Sydney, in 1928 Wilkie enterprisingly rented the Majestic at Newtown and played a highly successful season, following which he toured suburban theatres and halls. In early 1930, as the Depression and 'talkies' were beginning to exact their toll, he astonished the pundits by attracting full houses in Melbourne for a season of eighteenth-century comedy. In Sydney, however, the company faltered. Wilkie attempted to retrieve the situation by staging Doris Egerton Jones's Governor Bligh, a play written at his suggestion, which aroused some controversy but enjoyed only modest success. The company's next season in Melbourne proved so disastrous that Wilkie disbanded his players in October 1930. For a decade he had struggled to make his company part of the cultural establishment, engaging support from governors, politicians and education departments for his remarkable marathon which saw the production of twenty-seven Shakespearian plays in capital cities and country towns throughout Australasia, as well as a relentless effort to win government subsidy for classical theatre.

Wilkie was not, as Colin Bingham put it, an Irving. An impressive figure, nonetheless, with a moon-shaped face, he could command the stage, and his portrayals were usually thoughtful and effective. As a director, he combined skill and vision. A romantic and anti-modernist, he saw the practical advantages of a simpler staging of Shakespeare which allowed for more pace and textual authenticity. (Dame) Ngaio Marsh saw his productions as having 'a thrust and drive and an absence of tarting-up'. Wilkie founded the Shakespearean Quarterly, published in Sydney in 1922-24. Hunter-Watts, described by Hal Porter as 'an actress in the chilly classic mode', was accomplished and versatile, though never a robust performer.

After the company's demise, the Wilkies survived by reciting Shakespeare in country towns; in February 1931 they played in the first Australian professional production of Noël Coward's Hay Fever. They left Australia in September and spent most of the remainder of their lives in Canada, the United States of America and Britain. In 1955 Wilkie visited his son Douglas, a journalist in Melbourne. On 19 October 1962 Allan Wilkie married Bertha Winifred Martin at the Church of St Columba-by-the-Castle, Edinburgh. Survived by her, and by the son of his second wife, he died on 6 January 1970 at Rothesay, Isle of Bute, Scotland.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • M. Skill, Sweet Nell of Old Sydney (Syd, 1974)
  • C. Bingham, The Beckoning Horizon (Melb, 1983)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 1924, 3 June 1925, 8 Jan 1970
  • Table Talk, 10 Mar 1927
  • Shakespearean Productions, 1928-30 (manuscript, State Library of Victoria)
  • A. Wilkie, All the World My Stage (manuscript, State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

John Rickard, 'Wilkie, Allan (1878–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilkie-allan-9096/text16039, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 7 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016

Allan Wilkie, by May and Mina Moore, c1910-13

Allan Wilkie, by May and Mina Moore, c1910-13

tate Library of Victoria, H38782/1049