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A Play for 'National Theatre': Fifi Banvard in Hobart 1950-53

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posted on 2023-05-17, 16:38 authored by Owen RoeOwen Roe
Yvonne ('Fifi') Banvard (1901-62) appeared on stage from childhood, in the USA. Returning to her native Australia around 1918 she established herself in song-and-dance, and by the late 1920s showed interest in serious drama. For years thereafter she did miscellaneous work, radio increasingly, but after the war became active at the Minerva Theatre, Sydney. Her talents, verve, and sexuality always abounded. When the Minerva fell to cinema interests, Fifi and her partner, Gwen Friend, took its props to Hobart. There the Theatre Royal recently had become owned by the National Theatre and Fine Arts Society (Natfas), a development arising from Australia-wide concern for 'national theatre'. Under lease from Natfas, between July 1950 and March '51 "Banvard Productions" offered continuous work of good calibre. Fifi ever asserted claims to uphold 'national theatre' and 'the people'. Extraordinarily brave, the project defied rational possibility. Audience numbers were variable. Gwen Friend's inheritance, essential to the whole enterprise, had its limit. So did the State government's sympathy, while elements within NatEas bridled at Fifi's assertions. The couple stayed in Hobart until mid-1953, enjoying some successes, but with fading hope of a major come-back, returned to Sydney. They most notably produced 'White Coolies' as a radio serial.

Live drama suffered increasingly hard times in Australia during the 1930s and 1940s. Even the big capitals lacked audiences enough to sustain continuing professional companies. Radio and cinema were at their hey-day, offering entertainment for varied tastes. That left little room for traditional theatre, and occupying that space were amateur or semi-amateur groups. All these circumstances had effect in Tasmania, where insularity and sparse population had always impeded theatrical endeavour. Yet for a couple years in mid-century Hobart there proceeded an attempt, led by Yvonne ('Fifi') Banvard, to establish a permanent company, offering quality drama under the banner of 'national theatre'. The venture defied all common sense. It failed, but that it ever happened is extraordinary.


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Tasmanian Historical Studies








School of Humanities


UTAS Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies

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Private Bag 81 Hobart, TAS 7001 Australia

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