Bloomsday in Melbourne mourns a foundation Bloomsday Player, Bill Johnston, who died on Good Friday 2016. He joined Bloomsday only a year after it began in 1995 and was a feature of many of its 25 shows and fundraising events. He was also a foundation member of Chambers Theatre, started by another Bloomsday Player, Howard Stanley. Bill was a fearless actor, a larger-than-life master of comedy, a fine singer, and a lover of Joycean language.
He studied Divinity at Ormond College, University of Melbourne, and became a Uniting Church Minister. His progressive thinking as a theologian and pastor meant that parishes were not as forthcoming as they might have been, though he did practise his ministry to the end of his long life. The Church’s loss was theatre’s gain. It gave Bill immense satisfaction to have performed Ron Blair’s one-man show, The Christian Brothers, for a Christian Brothers’ novitiate, and to have been rewarded with an authentic strap (‘jack’) made for him and he used it to dramatic effect in Bloomsday’s version (directed by Renée Huish), and for Jejune Jesuit in 2007. He also memorably performed the sermon from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at Newman College.
Bill was a born actor. He loved centre-stage, was hugely generous, even as his physical energy was draining away, and was willing to take his talents into quite recondite places. This has been a huge advantage to Bloomsday, as Joyce calls for fearlessness in actors, and a well developed sense of the ridiculous. His sense of comedy was honed by Spike Milligan and the Goons, and he had the timing to carry it off, and was often quite mischievous – in liberating ways. Many instances demonstrate his courage as an actor: he enjoyed being a panto dame as much as the voice of a god in Circe; relished making Finnegans Wake sound meaningful (he sometimes begged for those roles), but his most courageous (and how typical of the man was it) role was to sing ‘ Wie poltert es! Abscheuliches Geröll ‘ by Herr Othmar Schoeck, the Zurich composer. Joyce, who sometimes backed the wrong musical horse, considered the song head and shoulders above those by Stravinski and Antheuil, and Bloomsday scripters wondered if it may have been the source for Bloom’s meditation:
Whew! By jingo that would be awful! No, no: he is dead of course. Of course he is dead. Monday he died. They ought to have some law to pierce the heart and make sure or an electric shock or a telephone in the coffin and some kind of canvas airhole.
The song called for a bass voice, and Bill, who loved music, was not at all put off by its lugubriousness or its modernist difficulty. For him, it was another opportunity to expand his horizons, perfect his craft, and take the kind of risk that gave him a buzz. It purports to be the voice of a man buried alive, singing from his coffin deep in the earth:
How it clatters! Vile medley
Of pebbles and earth, rotting bones!
I cannot laugh, cannot weep either,
And yet I wonder how this will end!
It’s quiet now. They push off home
And leave me lying here, seven feet under.
Now, fantasy! Let your eagles fly,
I doubt they’ll ever wing me free from here.
How strange a time this is now!
In the dark grave nothing stirs or moves,
While the soul, a woodworm, can promenade
In the pinewood. Is this eternity?
Mankind are a race of liars,
They’ve even lied their way into the grave,
with me basely deceived honest decay.
But alas, the lie takes vengeance on itself!
The liars go from here unpunished –
But ah, I, the lie, must cleave fast here,
that angry death can chafe away at me,
drinking up my life’s powers drop by drop!
Once having claimed it, and worked it up, Bill came to love something only a maker could really love. We suspect it had its second and last concert appearance in Melbourne at Trades Hall. Bill managed to make the song serious, ghastly (as is called for) and hilarious.
A genial and gentle man, Bill was generous and generative in sharing his skills with younger actors. His last appearance for Bloomsday was in 2010 when he performed multiple roles (Mrs Breen, Corny Kelleher, Phantasms of Cardinal, Bishop, voice of a god ) in Joyce’s Carnival of Vice (a dramatisation of Circe), and he performed again at fortyfivedownstairs in a programme of readings from Joyce. By then, he was at the start of his long final illness.
Bill is a great loss to the theatre community. He leaves a huge blended family who fully appreciate his quirks and talents, and are heavily influenced by him.
Frances is founding Director of Bloomsday in Melbourne.