Bille Brown in character

There’s no show without Punch, as the saying goes, and I don’t think any of the 800-strong audience at Bille Brown’s “last hurrah” in Brisbane last Monday afternoon (February 4) would have been surprised had he walked on stage with his familiar wave of the neckerchief and in his booming voice invited us all to join him at the bar.

It was Geoffrey Rush who did the honours in that respect, but the Playhouse Theatre was so full of Bille’s presence that it was as if he were still with us. Every part of the 90-minute tribute was directly connected with him, from the eulogies from home and abroad (Geoff Rush, Carol Burns, Kate Foy and director Neil Armfield in person; video tributes from Derek Jacobi, playwright David Hare and Sir Ian McKellen), with slide shows of Bille as child, young man and famous actor.  It was a relief, however, to learn that the last shot, a death mask, was not of Bille himself but of the poet William Blake, the subject of a modern oratorio on which Bille was working in his last few months.

On the side of the stage was the Ben Quilty portrait of Bille that the Sydney Theatre Company commissioned to publicise The Histrionic, Bille’s last major role which was, in the words of critic Coral Drouyn, the performance of his illustrious career in the part of a lifetime. It’s a confronting image where the subject is portrayed almost as victim, which brought an added shiver to the event. Rush bought the painting shortly before the actor’s death, and has donated it as a permanent loan to hang on the walls of the Queensland Theatre Company’s Bille Brown Studio.

It was Bille’s show, and combined extracts from his plays performed by his friends, a compilation of his life on film and, by far the best of all, Bille himself performing the “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It. Of the many renditions of this speech I’ve seen in my long life, this was by far the best and most intimate, and wrung every nuance out of the text. I learned later he had filmed it shortly before he died. That was the segment that released the tears, and it was as well that we all joined the cast for the last hurrah, a rousing rendition of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, after which Rush invited us, in words from Bille’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s mystery about art forgery, Mr W.H., to join him at the bar, sentimental romantics on one side, and cynical realists on the other — or words to that effect.

So we did, and I’m sure Bille was there with us because, in the words of one of his old friends, “the old bastard will be hanging around to make sure we did it all properly”.  So now he can really rest in peace.

It was the grandest send-off imaginable, an audience of luvvies and true friends, theatre workers and the general public, and one worthy in every way of the boy from Biloela, who in his later years strode the world stage like a colossus, but whose heart was always in Queensland where he belonged. Yes, Bille, in spite of what Tom Wolfe says, you can come home again.