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A COUPLE of years ago I found myself in a West Melbourne pub where a group of actors led by Richard Piper were having fun with Shakespeare, singing his songs to blues settings, paying tribute with a fair bit of zest.

In the midst of all this, two things stood out. Richard himself doing the king's soliloquy from Henry IV, Part 2, which he did with the stony magnificence he brought to the role when he played it years ago in a production with Joel Edgerton as Prince Hal and John Gaden as Falstaff. That, and the moment when Helen Morse did one of Cleopatra's speeches with the full weight of Shakespeare's dramatic context and made it clear that the role should be played only by one of the world's greater actresses, and we were witnessing the revelation of one of them doing it, for one epiphany of a moment, now.

Morse has never played Cleopatra on the Australian stage and no doubt she could say that she is now too old. Besides, who would match her as Antony?

Well, a couple of years earlier, in 2008, John Stanton did a show about the history plays' kings and anyone who saw it would be aware of the power of his equipment - that soaring voice that reminds some people of Richard Burton's, that piercing Patrick White stare that made him so convincing as Malcolm Fraser in the 1980s TV version of The Dismissal.

Everyone knows that Helen Morse and John Stanton are among our finest classical actors.

Why doesn't someone at least organise a reading of Antony and Cleopatra with them, perhaps with Richard Piper as Antony's henchman, Enobarbus, who describes Cleopatra in ''the barge she sat on like a burnished throne burned on the water''. I've seen Stanton burn up the stage as Prospero and as Julius Caesar. I last saw Morse in one of the handful of performances she gave as the wife of Ivanov in Chekhov's play at fortyfivedownstairs in 2006. But I've never seen Stanton's Lear or Piper's Falstaff or Helen Morse as Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra or in the great Chekhov roles.

Twenty years ago I saw Robert Menzies give a superb performance in the title role in a rough production of Shakespeare's Pericles and a magnificent performance - one of the finest I've seen, on any stage, in any country - in Jean-Pierre Mignon's production of Peer Gynt. He has had few comparable opportunities since.

We waste the riches of the actors we have and the fact that we rarely see them in the roles they deserve is not unrelated to the diminished sense of what we might do with the classics of the theatre. Nor need we be narrowly ''classical'' about this. The other day I was wandering down to the supermarket listening, as I thought, to an ancient tape of Laurence Olivier doing speeches from Hamlet and Henry V when suddenly the Shakespeare receded and was replaced by an ancient Australian voice, at first unidentifiable but intensely familiar, reciting a different kind of grand language - parodic, ocker, but of great dramatic authority. What was it? After a moment I realised it was Peter Cummins in the role he created of Monk O'Neil in Jack Hibberd's greatest play, the one hander, A Stretch of the Imagination.

Stretch is as unambiguously a modern classic and one of the jewels of the Australian theatre as King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra and Henry IV are perennial classics. One of the things we sometimes forget is that the belief that our theatre stands in a tradition that stretches back to the Greeks is one of the things that keeps alive our faith that the best of our contemporary work is first rate.

In many ways it's a pity that at the time when the opera and the ballet were established as national companies, we didn't do the same thing with theatre and establish a company of international standard that would keep alive the classics such as Sophocles and Shakespeare while also doing contemporary Australian plays and returning to those of our own plays that clearly deserved a classic status.

We are aware of this status with Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and with some of the best-known plays by David Williamson. But what about the great Stephen Sewell plays such as The Blind Giant is Dancing, which was first performed by Geoffrey Rush? In 2004, the production by Aubrey Mellor at the Malthouse (when it was still the Playbox) of Sewell's Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America was one of the most powerful dramatic responses to the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, and the war on terrorism anywhere in the world. This dark, superb work with its ironic, unsettling use of Kafka should be filmed but it should also be revived on stage and that's true of much of Sewell's work. And there are gaps everywhere: we get revival's of Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour but not of Hannie Rayson's Life After George.

We need, with some urgency, to preserve the best of our Australian plays just as we need to ensure that our productions of the classics of the theatre are equal to our imaginative conceptions of those works.

We need the classical as well as the modern classic if we are going to preserve any idea of the theatre.