Theatre: What Cate did first

Robert Butler on the Australian theatre company that spawned a generation of film stars
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If you want to know how Australia produces so many first-rate actors you could start by asking Neil Armfield. This week the 43-year- old director brings to London his epic five-hour production of Cloudstreet, the story of two Australian families sharing a house in the post-war years. It gives us a chance to see why Australian film stars turn down Hollywood offers to work for Armfield and Company B.

As artistic director of this Sydney-based company, Armfield directed Cate Blanchett as Ophelia in Hamlet, as Miranda in The Tempest and as Nina in The Seagull. Armfield first saw Blanchett at drama school. "Cate has a quality of perfection," Armfield told me last week. "You feel like she's from another world."

In Hamlet and in The Tempest, Blanchett had taken over the roles from other actresses. "My first experience with Cate was her fitting into other people's shoes." That soon changed. "We planned The Seagull round her. She seemed to be made for it." Blanchett says that it was what she learned doing The Seagull that gave her the strength "to carry the burden" of the film Elizabeth, for which she was an Oscar nominee.

Armfield's professional relationship with Geoffrey Rush stretches back 17 years. Rush won an Oscar for Shine but turned down a role in As Good As It Gets, the movie that went on to win Oscars for Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt and receive five other nominations. Rush preferred to appear in the Company B production of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. His co-star was Hugo Weaving, looking very different from the drag queen he played in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The producers of As Good As It Gets offered to buy out the entire production of The Alchemist. But Company B is one of those set-ups - like the Steppenwolf company in Chicago, where John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and John Mahoney regularly work - that defies the bottom-line logic of the entertainment business.

Company B's home, the Belvoir Theatre, is a converted tomato sauce factory on a derelict site in Surry Hills, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. When the company that used to own the theatre collapsed and the building's future was threatened, 600 artists and friends formed a syndicate to buy it. They called themselves Company A. The group that ran the theatre was called Company B.

Everyone was paid the same - from the cleaners to the leading actors. "There was an annual election for a board of seven to nine people who would be the artistic directorate," says Armfield, "and a sunset clause that after every three years you had to stand down. The name Company B was really a shelf title." In 1990 the sunset clause was abandoned, and Armfield took over as artistic director and called his new ensemble Company B.

Armfield created a loose ensemble of actors that challenged usual rehearsal methods. Company B was distinguished by the way that nobody could hide behind the idea that someone else was in charge. "The single most important thing," says Armfield, "is the actors taking possession and feeling the shared responsibility."

The productions also spoke directly to other Australians about their political inheritance, and, in particular, examined what Armfield describes as "the lie of terra nullius" - the idea that the land didn't belong to anyone before the convicts arrived.

Armfield's production of The Tempest featured the aboriginal actor Kevin Smith as Caliban. During rehearsals Blanchett gave an interview in which she spoke of Caliban as "a potent image of the way Aborigines were treated in Australia". Armfield also has enormous theatrical verve. His production of Dead Heart took place in a former railway yard. His exhaustingly physical production of Cloudstreet opened in sweltering conditions in a giant shed on a wharf.

The entire cast was involved in working on the script of Cloudstreet. Tim Winton's novel is a bestseller in Australia and is on the school syllabus. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, it charts the lives of two contrasting families - the Lambs and the Pickles - who move in to a large, rambling, haunted house.

Cloudstreet has played in Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide and has just been to Zurich. It's a big, expensive enterprise. (Nicole Kidman, Baz Luhrmann and Rush have all donated money to the production.) There are 102 scenes, 40 characters and a cast of 14. It spans four generations and 20 years.

As Armfield chats calmly in the foyer, a crisis swirls around him. There simply isn't enough time for the technical rehearsal and the first preview will have to be cancelled. Looking remarkably unstressed, Armfield explains why Winton wrote the book. "Tim had got a fellowship to work in Paris and before going he wanted to visit the places that had been significant to him around Perth. When he did he found that so many of them were no longer there. The act of writing the novel was an act of conservation."

Winton took Armfield and the cast round the same places before they began rehearsals. "We speculated on how ready Australians seem to be to pull down their built environment - sometimes twice in a generation - and how hard it is when memories can't be passed down and memories can't rest. You're in a state of insecurity. Australia seems a very insecure culture."

I call Winton at the Hotel Esplanade in Fremantle. "I live on the wrong side of the continent," he says, good-humouredly, then adding, "I live on the wrong continent." (Winton has a telephone at his home, but it's a silent one and doesn't ring.) He says he was "a bit puzzled" by the whole idea of a stage version of Cloudstreet. "Someone trying to adapt a big untidy outdoors novel. It struck me as a romantic idea at best. If not stupid," he says.

The adaptors, Nick Enright and Justin Monjo, sent him drafts. "I'm ashamed to say I didn't read them. I can't bear to read the novels themselves. Why would I want to read someone's adaptation of them?" He didn't turn up to the first night either. He was anxious for the show not to become a piece of nostalgia, or lose its edge. There were lots of things he was "fearful about, but that's my dreary Protestant nature".

He relented during the run ("A friend said I'd be a mug not to") and turned up on the closing night. "I thought, this is going to be a trial. Within a couple of minutes I'd forgotten I'd written the novel. I was blown away. I cried. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was able to sit there and not know what was going to happen next."

When Company B return to Sydney their next production will be The Small Poppies - about five-year-olds on their first day at school. The central character is named Clint. "He's the gormless, gangling one," says Armfield, "the one that cries when his mother leaves him at the front gate at school." No, Blanchett won't be taking the role. But Rush will be.

Cloudstreet : Riverside, W6 (0181 237 1111) opens Tues, runs to 3 October