#DeepWest – The essence of Werribee Mansion


    By Michael Smith

    Back in the early 2000’s, my partner Anne and I found ourselves in a cinema watching Bridget Jones Diary, as Bridget espoused the joy of a “full blown mini break holiday…(which) means true love”. 

    Meanwhile, in the same year over at Werribee Mansion Park, management were keen to find some nighttime activities for the public, and one of the tour guides, Alaine Beek, had an idea for an immersive period set play by lantern light within the hallowed halls. She was given the go ahead, and after a year of scripting and rehearsals, returned as Essence Productions with ‘What Was That?’, launched in 2003 and this year celebrates its 21st birthday. 

    For our wedding anniversaries we like to plan a mini break. While we live Westside we usually venture off to a wine region, but recently we found ourselves a little time constrained so booked locally and it turned out to be one of the best weekend breaks ever. Escaping all the way to Werribee was a complete treat.

    The Werribee Mansion is well known to most people in the West and even across that infernal bridge, but have you, oh dear clan of Westsider readers, thought to go for a weekend of Deep West adventure? There is the Lancemore hotel and restaurant within the mansion and old seminary building which is pretty swish.

    Tours of the Mansion are conducted throughout the day, built by Thomas Chirnside, for his beloved Mary, who actually married his rotter* of a brother Andrew, creating a tragic tale of unrequited love inside Australia’s largest private home. The conservation of the building and furniture on display make for an interesting and reflective afternoon of meandering through a myriad of hallways and rooms.

    Walking the park-like grounds around the mansion, superbly maintained by Parks Victoria and Friends of Werribee Mansion, the simply divine visual and scented pleasure of the Victorian Rose Garden makes for a delightful afternoon.

    Having explored throughout the day, we enjoyed a delicious early degustation dinner at Joseph’s Restaurant at the hotel, before what turned out to be the real highlight of the weekend – a performance of ‘What Was That?’. We walked through the cloisters and tiled verandah to the front entrance for show time. Upon knocking on the intimidatingly huge and heavy door, we were greeted by a doorman in full period costume, welcoming us as ‘guests of the Chirnside’s,’ and quickly realised this wasn’t going to be a passive viewing experience but a step back in time. Led by Alaine and her team in costume, guided by lantern light through the building and yard, the story of the Chirnside’s and their historic home unfolded through drama, comedy, and a few spooks along the way (damn them, yes, I jumped!) 

    It is a wonderful show, which even includes sitting amongst the splendour of the long-tabled dining room and finishing with a drink in the upstairs saloon, where there is a chance to chat and mingle with the actors. A few questions were asked. Inevitably in an old building, someone asks “Have you seen any ghosts?” 

    Alaine pauses, composes herself and in her Scottish accent explains “Well, not seen them, but back when we were rehearsing a show late at night, we knew we were the only people in the building, but all of a sudden we heard the patter of running back and forth upstairs – we all froze and looked at each in horror, wondering what to do… now I’m a tough Scottish lass, but I did not want to move, so I gestured to the others… but no one was moving. I shrugged and sighed, slipped off my shoes and very gingerly, quietly moved across the Terrazzo floor towards the staircase, and just as my footstep on the timber staircase caused a creak – the patter stopped immediately. Well, we were just finished for that night let me tell you!”

    It is wonderful to be in a heritage building in this immersive way, roaming through the building rather than watching from the other side of a barrier, or in a theatre setting with props. They also perform ‘The Dress’ here to rave reviews.

    Come dawn, I hadn’t forgotten the winery element of the weekend. Shadowfax, who are here too, have a great range, all well priced and delicious, in a striking building and garden setting. Oh, and my car boot has a little bit of room, hmmm, maybe a box, what if half is Rose? Ok, yay…

    The final best thing? Rather than the usual long drive home from a weekend away, a short 20 minute stint within Westside, and you are back home. Huzzah indeed! 

    *rotter is frankly unfair, but a full explanation needs a whole article, or go and see the play.

    Michael Smith
    Michael Smith
    Michael Smith is a proud Westie, passionate film fan and owner of the Sun Theatre, adventurer and host of Thursday Drive on 88.9 Wyn-FM

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