This is a history of both a place and a community. Darlinghurst Gaol is the place, the community is the Cell Block Theatre, established within the women’s cell block, or D Wing, of the gaol in 1957, forty years after its closure as a penitentiary. This was a theatre — a space where paintings were exhibited, dance, singing, plays and experimental pieces were performed, and rock bands played — that encouraged the experimental and avant-garde in Sydney’s arts world; a place where boundaries within the arts community disappeared. An appendix, listing every performance from 1955 to 2010, captures that eclecticism of the artists who performed, wrote or directed for the Cell Block, including Don Burrows, Ravi Shankar, Graham Bond, John Bell, Marilyn Richardson, Veronica Gilmore, Jeannie Lewis and Peter Sculthorpe. Yet, the theatre was not about ‘stars’. It was about exploring and building a community of performers, as part of the National Art School, a community that not only had an impact on the arts community in NSW, but also on the performing arts in Australia. This history challenges Australian expatriates’ claims that the Australia of the 1950s and 1960s was a cultural desert.
Written in an engaging style, and drawing on a range of sources — from archives to film, newspapers and interviews — this book captures the spirit that informed the Cell Block Theatre. The images produced in the book, from photographs of musicians and dancers to set sketches, are used to good effect in the telling of this history. The posters, in particular, provide a shorthand survey of changes in Australia’s cultural history. Yet the history of what was once D Wing is not ignored: the women who served time in the cell blocks included the unfortunate victims of a patriarchal society, the poor and the lost — and the legendary, such as Sydney’s ‘Queen of the Underworld’, Kate Leigh, who served time for perjury.