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Stars celebrate Bille Brown's talent, warmth and fierce humour

Queensland actor Bille Brown received his final standing ovation at a public memorial on Monday that delighted as much as it moved.

The actor and playwright died from bowel cancer on January 13, two days after celebrating his 61st birthday in hospital with "crab, lobster and champagne".

More than 1000 people packed into the Playhouse Theatre at QPAC for a colourful retrospect on not just the immense talent and skill of a creative luminary, but the generosity and humanity of a loving and boisterous man.

Geoffrey Rush – who described his and Bille's lives as "entwined like two strands of DNA" – held back tears as he describes their early days as university rivals who quickly became the firmest of friends.

His opening monologue highlighted Brown's versatility onstage as the kind of actor who could play both nobles and paupers, both comedy and tragedy, both Henry V and Falstaff.

Ian Stenlake sang a beautiful rendition of the Moreton Bay song as a montage of photographs from the "Boy from Biloela's" childhood played across a screen.


He then joined other notable Brisbane actors, Carol Burns, Kate Foy, Trevor Stuart, Christopher Sommers, Paula Nazarski and Luke Townson to enact excerpts from Brown's own plays, Bill and Mary, Tuff, The School of Arts and Mr W.H.

There were photographs of Brown's imposing and brutally funny stage moments, and clips of his nuanced and rounded screen performances.

In a letter, Sir Ian McKellen described Brown as "a god amongst men".

In a video, Sir Derek Jacobi recalled shared laughter as the dominant feature of the pair's time together at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Playwright David Hare and director Neil Armfield credited Brown with "redeeming" Hare's 1998 work The Judas Kiss, which had been poorly received on debut in London.

The Playhouse then stilled as Brown's voice, mellow and mellifluous, misted from the speakers over the audience, his Oscar Wilde mournful yet accepting of an unjust fate.

A clip of Brown delivering Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" speech from As You Like It showed the relaxed range of his ability – in turn a devoted lover, a brash soldier, a pompous judge, then a fearful and pained old man.

Alison St Ledger, Sandro Colarelli, Melissa Western and Stenlake sang We Are the Dreams from Brown's The Swan Down Gloves, before bringing all the players back onto the stage to finish with a rousing version of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, a song featured in Spamalot, in which Brown had played King Arthur.

The crowd got to its feet to sing and clap along to the effortlessly cheery Monty Python number, and finished by offering Brown's theatrical spirit a two-minute standing ovation.

Rush returned to the podium to offer a final thanks to his departed friend, using Brown's own words from Mr W.H. to insist everyone repair to the bar for the time-honoured theatrical tradition of a drink after the show.

At the great bar in the sky, Brown no doubt raised his glass as well.

Bille Brown AM, January 11, 1952 – January 13, 2013.