FEATURE: ‘Karnak’ embodies the magic of Diane Cilento


Howard Salkow

Senior Journalist

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(L-R) Douglas Shire Mayor Julia Leu and Giovanna Volpe, daughter of the late Diane Cilento, who is the driving force behind Karnak's revival. IMAGE: Howard Salkow - Newsport.

Revival of Diane Cilento's legacy

IT'S the memories of her actress mum Diane Cilento that entices her return every two months, and this is among the major reasons why Giovanna Volpe is committed to the revitalisation of Karnak Playhouse, located on the edge of the Daintree National Park.

In the 1980s, after settling in Mossman, Cilento built her own outdoor theatre, which she named Karnak, and which allowed her to participate in experimental drama. And up until its closure a few years ago, locals and visitors enjoyed many fine performances at the spectacular venue.

At an open day at Karnak on Saturday that attracted more than 200 people, Volpe expressed optimism that Karnak would be up and running in May or June next year, depending on the wet season.

“We want Karnak to again be part of the Douglas Shire. We want people to come to the shire for not only the rain forest and reef, but for artistic culture. We want it to have an international flavour,” she said in an interview with Newsport.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done. The hard part will be the seating, but we will get there. We have refurbished the kitchen and we are working on the gallery.

“Our family will finance the infrastructure, and the money we are hoping to raise is to support the young people who will have a place to understand themselves as creative people and develop creativity.

“I am also both amazed and encouraged by the number of people who have attended this open day. The community has been extremely gracious and after talking to a lot of people here today, they clearly want to see a rejuvenated Karnak,” said Volpe.

Douglas Shire Mayor Julia Leu, who attended the open day, said she was impressed with Giovanna's vision for a revitalised Karnak.

“The Open Day provided the community an opportunity to experience the beauty of Karnak and to put forward their own ideas. Obviously, there's a lot of work to be done but I look forward to the next phase and plans as they develop.

“Once that is achieved Council can then consider how to assist, such as advocacy for major external funding and possible grant opportunities,” said Leu.

The Open Day also attracted the past and present. Cheryl Dahlberg, who 30 years ago worked at Karnak and described herself as a “good Friday girl”, said it was a wonderful experience.

“I got to know Diane extremely well. She was a great lady. There was one occasion I fell ill and she visited me in the hospital. I only have good memories of Karnak and hope it returns.”

Leu said Karnak is a unique theatre in the rainforest and an icon of its time.

“Diane Cilento and Karnak helped put the Douglas region out there to the world during the 90s. It was a magical time with growing tourism numbers, with visits by Bill and Hillary Clinton, other international leaders and well known celebrities.

“Visitors had heard of Karnak from afar and were interested to see where Diane, an international movie star and former wife of Sean Connery, had made her home in the rainforest. 

“Not just a home, but an amazing unique theatre and cultural experience, which was embraced by many locals, including dedicated and hardworking supporters and friends.

“I have no doubt that a revitalised Karnak has incredible potential and would be an important boost to our region’s reputation for arts and culture,” said Leu.

Volpe expressed her love for Karnak and the memories. “I have so many memories of Di; how naughty she was; how she was so full of life; there was never a dull moment and you never knew what she would do next. I just love coming here and do so every two months.”

Diane Cilento died of cancer at Cairns Hospital on 6 October 2011, the day after her 78th birthday. In a highly successful acting career, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Tom Jones in 1963, and was married to the original James Bond, Sean Connery, from 1962 to 1973, when they divorced.

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