Playwright’s beliefs held strong

Errol O’Neill, 8 March 1945 – 23 April 2016

Errol O’Neill was very special to us. We loved him dearly and admired him greatly. We knew him through theatre, political protests, and as a contributor to the Cane Toad Times with his beautiful stories about his taxi-driving days. He was always our first choice for a male actor or voice and we worked with him many times. He was brilliant. Immensely talented and insightful. As a company we were the producers of his successful Deep Bells Ring, a play about Paul Robeson. Errol was the Director. The Courier-Mail published a shortened (400 word) version of the following obituary, edited by Robert Whyte with significant input from Sally Mackenzie, Iain Curr, Paul Evans, Jim Beatson, Bomber Perrier, Paul Dellit and Errol’s partner Mary Kelly.

Errol Joseph O’Neill was born in 1945 in Brisbane, Queensland. As a young man, his deep political convictions meant he would dedicate himself to fighting injustice, discrimination and elitism. Never one to shy away from a challenge, he chose to do it with art.

As a writer, actor and theatre director, Errol had a long and successful career. He was a contemporary of both Geoffrey Rush and Bille Brown at the start of their careers in Brisbane as they transitioned from university to the mainstream. All three were regarded as equally talented, but Errol’s commitment to telling the stories of Queenslanders for Queenslanders persuaded him to remain in Brisbane. As a writer, especially as a playwright, recognition came later, but he never wavered, either in his political convictions or his determination to realise them through his craft.

Errol studied philosophy and theology at the Gregorian University, Rome, then studied arts, majoring in English language and literature, at the University of Queensland. While at university he began writing, performing, directing and producing theatre.

As his political focus sharpened, Errol joined forces with like-minded, talented people in theatre and activism. He was instrumental in The Popular Theatre Troupe, a ensemble arguably the most politically articulate and radical theatre company ever to emerge from Queensland, touring its acerbically witty political satires all over Australia in the 1970s including to the Pram Factory in Melbourne – the heart of the Australian New Wave theatre movement. His main-stage plays focused on Queensland’s history and themes of greed and power.

Ian Curr wrote in the Bush Telegraph, “We owe a lot to Errol O’Neill for helping provide the education we did not get at school, about the political history of Queensland, about brothers, Ernie and William Lane, about Fred Paterson, the only communist elected to parliament in Australia. Errol’s trilogy of plays, On the Whipping Side, Faces in the Street and Popular Front were worth a thousand social studies textbooks. His complicated optimism and despair came through in all his plays – including The Hope of the World which made up his ‘quadrology’.” The Hope of the World was his play about the 1985 SEQEB strike in which he had played an active role, which led him to be “…standing in protest, with many other believers, on a pubic footpath outside an electricity depot in Taringa.” Errol said of his presence, “By refusing to be involved, you allow the forces that are dominant to take control of your life.

Despite his anti-establishment views, or perhaps because of them, Errol was involved in many organisations dedicated to improving the performing arts industry and was respected for his industry contribution. From 1984 to 1987 he was a member of the Australia Council, serving on Literature Board grant committees. He was a committee member of the Queensland branch of the Australian Writers Guild and the Queensland representative on their National Stage Committee. In 2003 he was awarded a Centenary Medal. He received the Playlab Award for services to new work in Queensland. Errol had 17 film and TV credits, including Len in East of Everything, Sirlak in Mission Impossible and Sergeant Rutter in the 1976 feature film Surrender in Paradise.

His prodigious talent came in three interwoven strands. As a writer of stories and plays, he was able to turn a minute interaction or an ordinary moment in time into a rich and layered insight into the human condition. It was this insight he brought to his acting. In one of Errol’s recent short stories Character, about his life as an actor in Queensland, he writes:

“Sometimes during a performance, no matter how well controlled and rehearsed, you find yourself in uncharted waters, and your resolve, strength and confidence come not from your own conscious abilities but from the deep pool within yourself.

“Sometimes you are jolted to the core of your being as you realise you are bringing people close to tears in the audience. Making them laugh is not as memorable, but when you bring them to tears you realise you are connecting in some grand way with the essence of humanity. You realise you owe a great debt to the legions of real people you have known and dealt with over a lifetime and from whom you have taken lessons in the simple and honest art of being human.”

He was able to see what made people tick because he could see how they were shaped by the forces around them. For Errol, the combination of the domains of writing, acting, and direct political action were all one seamless integrated quest. His success as a director and producer revealed his drive and determination to take his art and his politics “to the streets” (not to mention factories and shopping centres, as well as theatre venues from church halls to Southbank).

“I don’t think I am any less of an artist, writer or actor because I have a dominant political motive,” Errol once said. “I would not like to be seen as a neutral artist. There is no such thing as neutral art. All art is political”.

Born of Lebanese and Irish parents, Errol was 71 when he died. His mother Gladys Lutvey was a descendant of the Lutvey and Farrah families who came to Australia from Zahle Lebanon in the late 1800s. They settled in Gayndah in South East Queensland and opened a store there in 1898. Errol’s dad was Frank ‘Bluey’ O’Neill who drove a taxi often seen parked at the Stones Corner rank. This was a trade Errol himself took up to finance his art. ‘Bluey’ and Gladys sent their sons to St James School at Coorparoo. Errol is survived by his partner Mary Kelly and sons Kieran and Joseph. An industry tribute to Errol was standing room only at a Southbank auditorium.

Errol was the best of us. We were all political. We all shared his strong views on political activism. We strove as he did to be honest, courageous, defiant and compassionate in our private and public lives. We believed the key to being better people and living a ‘good life’ (philosophically speaking) was to radically improve society as a whole. Yes, we talked about it. We even marched for it, stood in picket lines for it and got bashed for it, when things got really bad. But more than any of us, Errol made it his life.

The shocking news of Errol’s sudden death by heart failure, during a brief hospital stay, shook all his friends and colleagues like a physical blow. Emotions flooded our minds with feelings of loss and regret. A great loss (of Errol taken from us) and the regret we had not honoured him more, been more like him, spent more time with him and learned more from him. In the same moment these thoughts took us to the edge of tears, an image appeared, like a too-real memory, of Errol looking back at us with a curious and amused gaze, a dry smile on his lips and laughter in his eyes, saying, “That’s a bit rich, mate.”

Even now, Errol, you make us cry and you make us laugh, as you always could.

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