After almost an hour perusing the new Reg Livermore: Take a Bow exhibition, I’m finally introduced to the man himself. Livermore, who kindly poses for a few photographers, seems full of the kind of nervous energy one might expect to see during opening night at one of his many performances.
After a few friendly introductions and handshakes are made, I politely congratulate him on the exhibition, which he has helped bring to life with curator Margaret Marshall. The retrospective collection, which marks the latest phase in the Art Centre’s “Icon” series, is not only a celebration of a very gifted performer but also a fascinating insight into the history of Australian Theatre. I quickly explain to Reg that the first time I saw him hit the stage was as wily film producer Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ 2004 musical The Producers. Neglecting to mention that I wasn’t born for the majority of his career, I then add that I had no idea… “Where I’d been all these years?” Reg interrupts me with a wry smile. Well as a matter of fact, that thought had indeed crossed my mind several times while crossing the Yarra on the humid Thursday morning.
As it turns out, what Livermore has been doing all these years is blazing a trail through Australian theatre circles, emerging as one of the most respected performers of his generation. Although perhaps, to a younger generation, he is not exactly a household name (sadly, too few in Australian theatre are), Livermore seems a more than appropriate choice for the Arts Centre to pay tribute to, through a program that has previously recognised AC/DC, Kylie Minogue, Nick Cave and Dame Edna Everage. With 18 costumes, 27 posters and 180 photographs all on display throughout the Art Centre’s Gallery One, Marshall and Livermore have certainly left few stones unturned in showcasing the progression of a stunning fifty-plus year career on the stage.
For all the different types of memorabilia on offer, it is, of course, the frocks that steal the show. Numbering eighteen in total and bordered by a series of theatrical, multi-coloured footlights, this superb array of outfits even manages to rival Kylie’s best efforts and even the great Dame from Moonee Ponds. It comes as no surprise that Livermore admits feeling simultaneously ‘grateful, proud and scared,’ looking back at all these outfits as many of them seem like they’d be more at home in the wardrobe of a seasoned opera diva rather than a 72 year old male actor. The majority of the gowns are plucked from Livermore’s many solo shows including Sacred Cow, Firing Squad, Wonder Woman and Betty Blokk Buster Follies, which were very popular throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Some highlights of the stunning pieces include a Mikado-inspired number used in the ‘Death of a Butterfly’ scene in Wonder Woman (1976-1977) and a tropical multi-coloured dress, complete with lavish fruit hat worn by Carmen Marhuana, another of Livermore’s memorable characters. Perhaps the most famous of Livermore’s long-term characters is Leonard, who debuted in 1989’s Wish You Were Here. Leonard merits an entire wall that displays his evolution and there is even a projection showcasing some very suggestive dance footage from one of his shows. I can’t help but chuckle upon noticing a warning placed just below the screen that reads ‘please be advised that this footage contains content that some visitors may find confronting.’ I wonder to myself whether this warning is more for the visitors’ or Reg’s benefit.
The era of Reg’s career that I’m perhaps most familiar with is displayed in a small alcove that features stills and posters from Livermore’s more contemporary productions. These include The Producers (2004), Pirates of Penzance (2007) and My Fair Lady (2008.) While this area undoubtedly proves that Livermore is still going strong at a point when a lot of performers would be hanging up the tights, it contrasts heavily with the ‘A Rising Young Actor’ corner at the opposite end of the space. This area portrays a much younger Reg, starting out as a wide-eyed 10-year-old in Parramatta. Here, he features in an adorable 1954 hand-drawn Rheem advertisement and is even captured giving his best Macbeth in a 1955 Knox Grammar School production. Even from these early shots, including his time at Phillip St Theatre, it’s hard to ignore Livermore’s passion for all things theatrical, which echoes all throughout the exhibition.
For a performer with over fifty years experience in the industry, it’s rather odd to see Livermore’s awards and accolades designated to a diminutive cabinet situated unceremoniously towards the entrance of the exhibition. While many of the awards, including Variety Entertainer of the Century and membership into the Australian Artists Creative Fellowship are certainly nothing to be sneezed at, Livermore fondly notes in his opening introduction that he truly sees this exhibition as his “lifetime achievement award.” Reg is clearly the kind of a performer who views his work as its own reward. Although he compares viewing the exhibition to looking at his career “through the wrong end of a telescope,” it is fortunate that so many memorable parts of it are now able to make another curtain call to a new generation of theatre audiences. Take a bow, Reg.