All the world was a stage for NZ Players founder

THEATRE STALWART: Richard Campion, who died on July 2, with wife Jude Campion in 2009.
THEATRE STALWART: Richard Campion, who died on July 2, with wife Jude Campion in 2009.

Richard Campion, theatre pioneer: b Wellington, December 13, 1923; m (1) Edith Hannah (diss), 1s 2d, (2) Judith Phipson; d Wellington, July 2, 2013; aged 89.

Life was an exuberant theatrical experience for Richard Campion, so it was only natural he should make it his career.

He even said he never thought of acting as acting, "just being".

His outstanding productions were the formation of The New Zealand Players in his early years and, closer to home, his family, including Academy Award- winning film-maker Jane Campion, who credits him with the illustrious path she took.

For the past decade, Richard Campion's deep theatrical involvement, though never his attendance at theatrical events, was limited by poor health, but punctuated, in 2004, by the award of a New Zealand Order of Merit for more than 50 years of service to theatre.

That included acting in, directing and producing innumerable productions for stage, television and film and helping to establish the Downstage and Mercury theatre companies.

His daughter Jane's love of theatre came from him and her mother - Edith Campion was the most acclaimed New Zealand actress of her era. Richard Campion's probably came from home, too. His mother was an inspirational storyteller.

His father was a butcher and the family of eight children, which followed Exclusive Brethren dictates, lived in Wellington's Mt Victoria, where Campion claimed he probably killed the last rabbit. The young Richard escaped religious confinement largely by becoming an Evening Post paper boy, buying a bike with his pay and noting, through the windows of houses on his run, that not all non-Brethren homes were dens of iniquity.

There were no books in the Campion house but he used to sneak into the library, not far from The Post, and read them. In school holidays he was sent off to a farm and it was on one of these excursions that he spontaneously kick-started his acting life.

He had borrowed, for the journey home, a Richmal Crompton William book and recalled in an interview: "The whole train was exposed to Little Dick, roaring with laughter. I went back to Clyde Quay school and organised some of the boys to act it out. Just as we were ready, poliomyelitis hit and we were all sent off."

He saw his first real play as a student at Wellington College, presented by Wellington Repertory, and thought it "astonishingly phony" and, later, his first opera, where he could hardly stifle his amusement. He was later to direct opera.

At Wellington College and Wellington teachers' training college he came into the orbit of two of the country's finest theatre exponents, Bruce Mason and Ngaio Marsh. Mason, at the stage he knew him at school, struck him primarily as "a very elegant wing in the First XV. We appreciated the same sort of things. He knew about acting and he'd been to a few plays".

Marsh he encountered at training college, but it was the later influence of Maria Dronke, a talented and exotic German Jewish emigre, which seems to have been greater. He recalled her reading New Zealand poetry with a German accent so it was both electrifying and funny, at the same time giving her young New Zealand audience an understanding of themselves.

Campion graduated as a teacher and went back to teach at Wellington College. He was confident he was a good teacher. A noted head of what was the New Zealand Drama School, George Webby, described him as "inspiring" and the catalyst for "amazing" student productions. Webby also described Campion as "an inspirational dreamer".

But what "stuck like a biddy- bid" in Campion's mind was George Bernard Shaw's declaration that people who can, do, and people who can't, teach.

In 1945, he married heiress Edith Hannah, only child of George and Jessie Hannah and granddaughter of the industrialist Robert Hannah, founder of the shoe chain, one of the great dynasties of New Zealand retailing.

The young couple set off by flying boat to train at The Old Vic in London, he as a producer, she as an actress. There they worked with some of the greatest actors, designers and scripts of the day.

A story he told of that time, weeping in an interview in the 1990s as he did so, is a manifestation of the merging of his life and art. He was in Manchester, his story went, in the early 1950s, still at the Old Vic and involved in an outdoor production, when a real-life drama began playing out at a nearby pond. "The trees were all black, the bark was all black, with a glint of green here and there." Suddenly a person rushed up to shout: "There's a baby fallen in the pond."

Campion and others abandoned the play and rushed to the pond where a group of British people were all pointing at a submerged baby carriage. The baby had drowned. "They thought they couldn't get their feet wet, or thought they weren't allowed to get into the pond, conditioned not to do anything on their own initiative. It wouldn't have happened in New Zealand."

After three years, abandoning Britain and its woefully obedient population, the Campions returned to New Zealand and together founded The New Zealand Players. Their first production, in the coronation year, was The Young Elizabeth. They toured, giving thousands of New Zealand school children their first taste of theatre.

When New Zealand theatre was down on its luck in the 1960s, Campion spent time in Australia, first as resident producer for J C Williamson in Melbourne and later for the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and visiting tutor at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. Back in New Zealand, he directed the New Zealand Theatre Centre, promoted by the newly formed Arts Council.

For a while, he also went farming in Horowhenua, but theatre was too deeply imbedded in his being. He said of his sidestep into agriculture that he felt he was imitating life in the theatre "and after a while you are in danger of imitating imitation".

After his marriage to Edith foundered, he married his second wife, Judith, then headmistress of the exclusive Hawke's Bay private girls' school Woodford House. They were alike in their love of theatre, though Judith's delight was in being a great audience rather than an actor. Twenty years younger, Judith eventually left her principal's job to share life with Campion in Wellington.

Until well into his 80s, Campion played golf and tennis and swam at the Thorndon pool, within walking distance of their home. Together, the couple attended an extraordinary number of Wellington theatre productions, musical events excluded. Even in his last year, unable to hear or fully understand the production he was at, he could still absorb the atmosphere which had fuelled him all his life.DIANA DEKKER

Sources: Campion family; Fairfax Media Library.

The Dominion Post