JULIA, STC at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 31 March-20 May 2023. Photography by Prudence Upton: Justine Clarke and Jessica Bentley
The art of political rhetoric is all but lost these days to the sound bite. Amazing then, that as recently as 2012 an example of the form made unforgettable in modern times by the likes of Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr, and John F Kennedy, should have come roaring out of the Australian parliament.
Even more amazing: just like Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches…”, MLK’s “I have a dream…” and JFK’s “Our goal is not the victory of might…” Julia Gillard’s “Misogyny Speech” almost didn’t happen. Because, for each of these earth-shaking addresses, there had been an alternate time, place, or speaker that could have consigned these moments to the forgettery of the past. But no, they were delivered, and the world was never quite the same again.
In Julia, Joanna Murray-Smith forensically dissects Gillard’s life from the standpoint of The Misogyny Speech – how her origins in old south Wales, her upbringing in Adelaide, youthful influences, consequent ambitions, and subsequent work choices all led inexorably to those shattering 15 minutes on 9 October 2012.
Across its 90 minutes, it becomes clear that the play could have been titled I Will Not. If so, it might have silenced some niggling criticisms that insufficient attention has been paid to Gillard’s political failings. And, of course, she did fail. Those who, for instance, wanted her to push through marriage equality, not go with offshore detention and not cut the single-parent allowance are eternally disappointed. But as Julia (Justine Clarke) notes, the legislation she did negotiate into being broke parliamentary records and made life better for millions, even as her compromises infuriated many others.
Negotiation and compromise are the keys to Gillard. Leading a minority government whose existence relied on minor party support, she was able to cajole and persuade so effectively as to achieve more in her short reign than any other Australian PM. And, as slowly becomes clear as our own frustrations grow with hers, the Misogyny Speech was inevitable.
Given how short memories are, the play – through Clarke’s astonishing performance as not only Gillard but also meta-Gillard, and a dispassionately-amused commentator – delivers short sharp reminders of the vile behaviours that sullied her days in office. Could we really forget? Yes, easily, including what the Government Leader of the House at the time, one Anthony Albanese, said a week before The Speech: “Tony Abbott has engaged in personal attacks and vilification of the Prime Minister that have sent a sign to people on the conservative side of politics that there's nothing too low, nothing out of bounds, nothing that goes too far in personal attacks.”
In the audience (Thursday, April 6) the female majority could be heard gasping, snarling, and groaning at various junctures. The older women remembered, the younger ones heard for the first time, and all were appalled all over again. It’s a glorious piece of work by Joanna Murray-Smith, both imagined and factual. The bloody-minded toughness of so much of Gillard’s reality is delivered with tenderness and the everyday poetics of an articulate yet reticent woman – which is how the playwright succeeds in revealing Gillard.
And just as one might think having a stroke would be the easy way out of the frustration and fury filling the auditorium, occasional bliss bombs of humour explode on stage. Clarke does a brief and hilariously accurate impersonation of Tony Abbott, and breaks the fourth wall to engage a hapless bloke in the front row. It’s a fabulous night in the theatre.
Director Sarah Goodes is a significant part of the achievement. She draws from Clarke a performance that’s at once humane, modulated, knowing, and monumental. Goodes also uses the entirety of the wide stage to shift and maintain focus even while the actions of a silent amanuensis (Jessica Bentley) subtly illustrate how alone Gillard was. This is further emphasised by the teamwork of set designer Renée Mulder, lighting designer Alexander Berlage, composer and sound designer Steve Francis, and video designer Susie Henderson.
Then, finally, the audience feels and shares how the ultra-controlled, ultra-cool, ultra-private Gillard has had enough. And The Speech erupts, punctuated by the long, pale, prehensile fingers stabbing at Abbott across the dispatch box. It’s an irresistible tidal wave of rage, emotion, and hurt, as well as dazzling reason and intellect. There should be more stars than five, but as Julia Gillard knows, life isn’t fair. Do. Not. Miss.