THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO PAUL
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO PAUL, Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House 13-18 May and eastern regional tour including Seymour Centre 15-20 July 2019. Photography by Brett Boardman – Jonathan Biggins
In the program notes, the author/playwright/star Jonathan Biggins writes that The Gospel According to Paul is, “the first three-dimensional, unauthorised autobiography written by someone else”. There is truth in this as well as a fair amount of the sardonic humour so reminiscent of The Man himself.
The man is, of course, Paul Keating. He is the hero and villain, the one and only, the inspiration and damnation, the gadfly and the giant, and still – more than 25 years since he left Australia’s top job to lesser applicants – the most recognisable, most incendiary, most lauded, loved and loathed leader since...whenever.
Biggins is also reasonably recognisable too: a cornerstone of almost two decades of The Wharf Revue, an accomplished playwright, newspaper columnist, actor and director, as well as one of the funniest sketch writer-performers since...whenever. And as the years have gone by, he has – as is often quipped – become more like Keating than Keating.
Biggins is a wicked and inventive mimic and his most memorable Wharf Revue characters include – in no particular order but indelibly memorable – a gormless Kiwi muso, Tony Abbott, a limp noodle Scout leader, a prowly Peter Costello, various unctuous religious, an urbane Bob Brown, The Great Man, a nightmarishly realistic Peter Dutton and an uncanny Donald Trump. Nevertheless, it is as PJ Keating that Biggins’ appearance on stage is most warmly-anticipated – in audiences of True Believers and beyond – and the one with whom he’s grown and developed over the years.
Logical then, that at some point Australia’s one and only rock star politician should be lifted from the time restrictions of the sketch format and given his rightful place as grand fromage of his own story. It’s worked at least once (notably Casey Bennetto’s Keating: the Musical) so why not an intimate fireside audience with the man himself – so to speak?
The set is an elegant, comfortable study, glowing jewel-like in the dark. It’s decked out with Keating flourishes: several antique mantel clocks, a meaningful mahogany desk, a couple of Persian carpets, a portrait of Napoleon; carefully placed period lamps, a record player and stack of LPs, and so on (design Mark Thomson, lighting Verity Hampson). The audience has plenty of time to examine the room – and take photos (“it’s a copy of his real office,” a woman whispers reverently to her companion as they aim their phones) before the man arrives on stage – to applause, naturally.
He prowls and twinkles and intimidates the front rows, the characteristic walk now a bit stiffer but so distinctive a ripple of nervous giggles passes through the audience. His producer has strongly urged he engage in some audience participation, he confides, a wicked grin splitting the famous pout. His contempt for this idea crackles around him like electricity as he makes a few half-hearted, inept and mocking attempts before reverting to full-Keating. It’s funny and scary
As he discursively sets out through the Life of Paul, from Western ’Burbs boyhood onwards, there is scintillating mischief at his own expense as a slide show complete with full-up screen comes into play, as well as the famous and not so famous interest in music (sound and video designer: David Bergman).
In case you were born yesterday, by the way, Keating’s CV includes gigs as manager of rock band The Ramrods, great mates with Tom Jones, Sydney City Council clerk; as well, a young man who learnt the political ropes by listening to Jack Lang. Along the way he discovered a passion for antiquities and classical music, especially Mahler, and so on. It’s an authoritative portrait of an autodidact and a very Australian one too, encompassing local branch meeting boredom, the thrills and spills of the Whitlam government and the nation-changing Hawke-Keating years.
Biggins’ characterisation is affectionate but not hagiographic. He draws a vivid portrait of the boy, the ALP tyro, the rise and rise, the ambition and the eye on the prize. Yet it’s all leavened by the bumps and bruises and real sadnesses along the way. The Gospel According to Paul is a remarkable piece of writing combining as it does irreverent humour, politics, history and a three-dimensional human being.
Director Aarne Neeme has wisely kept a loose rein on the actor and appears to have concentrated mainly on keeping him moving forward and within the bounds of the lights. The nuanced pace and performance gives us plenty to laugh with, but essentially, plenty to think about with the Redfern speech, the Native Title Act glowing in the dark and lighting the way to the future and Kevin Rudd’s apology.
If you are a Keating hater, I’m sorry for you because you’re missing out on the best of Australia. You’ll also miss out on one of the cleverest, funniest, most heartwarming history lectures to come along in many years. It’s sold out most places, but if you can find a ticket: slip into your Zegna and give yourself a rare treat.