Few performances in Australian theatre history are more legendary than the Mercury Theatre's production of The Imaginary Invalid at O'Brien's Glass Factory in Sydney on Wednesday, 18 August 1948. During the factory's lunch break, a cast led by a young Peter Finch performed Molière's farce on the floor of a section of the joiner shop in front of an audience of around 450 people, including Sir Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh. The performance thrilled Olivier so greatly that he invited Finch to London, leading to Finch's becoming an international star - and Leigh's lover. The story of the O'Brien's Glass Factory performance has been re-told in countless biographies of Finch, Olivier and Leigh, not to mention a miniseries and a play.' Even today it remains one of the most famous lunch-time theatre performances in history. However, relatively little is known of other work - if any - accomplished by the Mercury.
The Mercury Theatre Company only existed for a short while: a 'Peter Finch' phase from 1946 until 1948, when Finch left for England, and a 'St James Hall' phase, where the company worked from 1952 until 1953. However, during its brief lifetime, the Mercury managed to produce an impressive number of productions, give work to some of Australia's leading actors, and help launch the career of one of Australia's most famous acting exports. Although the Mercury ultimately collapsed, its story is worth remembering because of what it achieved, what it failed to achieve, and the contribution it made to Australian theatre history.
The guiding power of the Mercury all through its existence was not Peter Finch, but a German immigrant called 'Sydney' John Kay. Finch always described Kay as 'the real soul and force behind the Mercury Theatre ... He infected me with his burning passion for drama; his titanic energy was a contagion.'2 Kay was born in Germany in 1904, the son of a Peruvian Jew. He studied music and engineering at Leipzig, where he also began working as an assistant stage manager in various theatres. In 1929 he gave up engineering in favour of music and joined a musical group named the 'Weintraubs Syncopators', with whom Kay toured the world. 'The Beatles of the thirties we were', reminisced Kay later. 'Everything we want, we have. We go to a hotel room, "Where's the grand piano?" we ask. They bring grand piano.'3 The Syncopators were touring Australia when World War Il broke out, and Kay was interned as an enemy alien. On his release, he decided to stay in Australia and went to work in radio, becoming a composer and musical arranger. In 1944 he established Sydney John Kay Theatrical Enterprises, which ran a theatre for children at Assembly Hall in Margaret Street. Allegedly the first of its kind in Australia, the theatre staged adaptations of such stories as The Emperor's New Clothes and The Reluctant Dragon, until March 1945, when it closed down due to an infantile paralysis epidemic.4
Kay's radio work saw him come into contact with Peter Finch, who by 1946 was probably the leading radio actor in the country. The two of them discovered a common dissatisfaction with the state of Australian theatre at the time, and a mutual desire to do something about it. Finch:
We were wild-eyed with fanaticism, desperate that something be done to drag the Australian theatre from the dreary doldrums of The Desert Song and Maid of the Mountains where it had been wallowing for decades; to do something better than the meretricious slickness of the radio serials.5
Theatre in post-World War II Sydney tended to be one of three things: J.C. Williamsons Ltd, the operators who had a near-monopoly on commercial theatre in Australia; 'little' theatre, professionally managed theatres which used amateur actors, such as the Independent; or variety shows, such as the Tivoli. Since variety and J.C. Williamsons toured around the country, no one could afford to sign for one of their productions without risking being replaced in any radio work they were also doing. …