Marc Opitz has submitted this obituary to AussieTheatre to pay tribute to Julia Britton, who passed away in Adelaide on November 5 this year.
Born Hilda Hartt in Romily Cheshire, Britton was educated at Withington Girls School and the University of Manchester, graduating in 1930. She emigrated to South Africa to teach Latin and Greek at a Girl's School in 1936 and it was here she met her husband, composer-musician Philip Britton.
She became one of South Africa's first female journalists and soon after began to write plays. Her passion for writing found a brilliant musical collaborator in her husband, and together they wrote and produced intimate revues and two full length musical plays Golden Country, and Jersey Lily, before emigrating to Adelaide in 1967 where Britton taught classics at Adelaide University.
The noted and prolific Australian playwright was 98 years old when she passed away earlier this month, and she is survived by her daughters Louise and Stephanie, her son Simon, three grandchildren Eugene, Francesca, Alex and a great grandchild India-Rose.
Britton also leaves behind her many beloved colleagues and friends in the Australian arts industry.
Possessed of a dynamic imagination, sharp wit, talent and a vivacious personality, Julia Britton was a challenging and versatile writer whose output was prolific.
After her husband’s untimely death, she returned to writing for the theatre and decades of shelved ideas, scenes, characters and plots were released in a flood of vibrant new plays, establishing her as one of Australia’s most prolific writers of the 1990s.
In 1982 Britton won the AWGIE Monte Miller Award for her play: Exits and Entrances. She was appointed Playwright-In-Residence at the Stage Company, a position which led to the production of her most acclaimed play Miles Franklin and the Rainbow's End. A popular and critical success, the production was invited to the San Antonio Festival in Texas for a short season, where it was met with equal acclaim. The play was later revived at Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre and has since returned at La Mama (1992) and by Fly-On-The-Wall Theatre (2000) at both Melbourne’s Theatreworks followed by Perth's The Blue Room as part of the inaugural WA Fringe Festival.
She was introduced to young director Robert Chuter by friend/director Malcolm Robertson in 1988. Chuter soon became her long-time collaborator, confidante and close friend. Their unusual partnership created many site-specific shows commencing with the legendary Loving Friends, which played to sell-out audi
ences at Elsternwick's historic mansion Rippon Lea. The success of that play, dramatising the lives of the Bloomsbury set, spawned a sequel An Indian Summer a year later, which once again proved to be enormously popular. The ability to visualise new plays and complete them in an extraordinarily short space of time without the need for editing, was the badge of her seemingly boundless creativity and massive output.
In 1995, Britton and Chuter unleashed their notorious adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover, again at Rippon Lea which remains the production for which Britton is probably best known. Daring, frank and faithful to the novel, the 1999 Perth season, produced by Peter Holmes a Court, met with opposition from the Christian Democrats, whose unsuccessful attempt to get the production closed down only helped to propel its appeal and popularity. The season also received an unwelcome but otherwise flattering visit from the plain-clothed police who, expecting to close down the show from the inside, instead stayed to watch the production in its entirety. Controversy aside, the play again was hugely successful and received additional high profile seasons in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne.
The duo’s outdoor seasons at Rippon Lea continued with popular adaptations of: Seven Little Australians, Anne of Green Gables, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Women In Love and the maverick reproduction of Melbourne’s 1920 ball for the visiting Prince of Wales – I Danced With A Girl who Danced with the Prince of Wales.
Britton and Chuter continued their controversial trail, with the 2001 premiere of The Singing Forest, a jaw-dropping three hour epic about the journeys of three holocaust protagonists struggling to survive the horrors of Auschwitz. By contrast the theatrical site-specific romp Five-Minute Call, which saw the audience move through the various bars and rooms of Melbourne's The Butterfly Club used Britton’s gift for quirky comedy.
2009 brought the genesis of Britton’s feature film adaptation (due for release 2013) of her play The Dream Children, directed by Chuter together with the stage version premiering earlier the same year at the La Mama Courthouse. Her debut productions in England, with which she travelled at the age of 92, Oblomov’s Dream at Jermyn Street Theatre and Fresh Pleasures at the Pleasance Theatre were greeted with mixed reviews. Britton’s personal life and the lead-up to the production of Fresh Pleasures were recorded in Rob George’s Screen Australia documentary Fearless which has been screened worldwide.
Undeterred by age, her ideas and views were modern and progressive. In addition to her enormous output of plays, music theatre, poetry and screenplays, her nurturing and encouragement of emerging actors, directors, artists and musicians, supported a new generation. Her wit, wilfulness, vision, ideas, storytelling and great generosity will be missed.
– MARC OPITZ