Casey Bennetto's scintillating operetta-biography of Australia’s only popstar PM is unashamedly and emotionally in thrall to the fomer leader. At the same time, however, Bennetto keeps it acid-sharp, tongue-in-cheek and it's neither sycophantic nor hagiographic. Readers who want to know how not to do it should try ploughing through John Howard: Prime Minister by Pru Goward and David Barnett (Viking, 1997). One chapter and it's everything you ever needed to know about how to bore the socks off even diehard fans.
Bennetto is a very different kind of writer. His Keating is as cool, sassy, wicked and unlikely a politician of the late 20th century as the man himself. Keating was a Renaissance wide boy: the original aspirational, the autodidact from Bankstown who so dearly wanted Australians to recognise and enjoy the finer things in life. Well, the finer things as Keating understood them: Mahler, antiques, elegant clothes, a greater vision for the future for Australia, reconciliation with indigenous Australians and a boldly realistic understanding of our place in the world.
Alas, in 1996 47% of Australians decided they much preferred John Howard’s vision of being “comfortable and relaxed” and that was that. Nevertheless, Bennetto’s libretto starts the story in happier times with the World’s Greatest Treasurer getting seriously antsy about the Silver Bodgie’s limpet-like attitude to The Lodge. Happier, that is, unless you happened to be Bob Hawke and about to get rolled for the prime-ministership.
Working with its creators, Belvoir director Neil Armfield has taken last year’s very successful short, sharp cabaret show and extended it to 80 short sharp minutes of very successful musical theatre. It’s an unlikely and entertaining concept: Canberra as cabaret; recent political history as enthralling narrative. The last part isn’t unlikely because the Hawke-Keating years, the brief flowering of the Keating ascendancy then the rise from the undead of the man who would turn out to be our second longest serving prime minister is gripping stuff.
As played by Terry Serio (doubling brilliantly and hilariously as Keating’s bookends, Hawke and Howard) and Mike McLeish (all saturnine charm and unnerving elegance as Keating) it’s sheer entertainment too of the most satirical and satisfying kind. For example, this show celebrates Keating’s ambitions for indigenous ambitions with the very danceable Mabo Mambo; the sad affair of Gareth and Cheryl gets a workover; Lord Downer of Baghdad appears in his previous guise as Dolly Downer - a sub-Sally Bowles - and John Hewson, the human calculator, once again fails the fatal GST test (both played by Bennetto).
The on-stage band is every good: Alon Ilsar on drums, Eden Ottignon, bass; Enio Pozzebon, keyboards and as Gareth Evans; Guy Strazz, acoustic guitar and Mick Stuart, electric guitar and, in a red frock, a hapless and surprisingly sympathetic Cheryl Kernot.
The design, by the man who never sleeps, Brian Thomson is simple in black and red cabaret-nitery style with The Man’s name picked out in red lights. The other indefatigable creative is Damien Cooper whose lighting is perfect late night club shadows and spots. John O’Connell’s choreography has Keating as al Fred Astaire figure of elegance and charm: McLeish can do it all and he does: true believers in the audience veer between delight and anguish throughout the evening.
There are some who would quibble with this account of the architect of Australia's economic metamorphosis, but they would be missing the point. L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between famously begins: "The past is another country; they do things differently there." More's the pity.
Keating! - Belvoir St Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills, to January 14, 2007; ph: 9699 3444 or www.belvoir.com.au