Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 31 – May 20, 2023
Playwright: Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Jessica Bentley, Justine Clarke
Images by Prudence Upton
We know that Julia Gillard, our 27th Prime Minister, is made of some truly formidable stuff, simply for being the first woman to attain that coveted position. In Joanna Murray-Smith’s play simply named Julia, evidence of all her incredible grit and gumption, is consolidated into a 90-minute piece, telling a story not only of Gillard’s virtues, but also of the immense culture of sexism and misogyny, so fundamentally entrenched in Australian life. Holding office from 2010 to 2013, Gillard’s experiences as the most high-profile woman on these lands, meant that she had to navigate some of the worst abuse ever witnessed in the public sphere, at a time even more hostile to female leaders than today, before the prior to the 2016 watershed #MeToo movement.
Murray-Smith’s writing is undeniably powerful, valuable both as documentation of a deeply significant moment of our history, and as a feminist work that proves enormously inspiring. Julia can at times feel excessively deferential, and can be charged with having minimised Gillard’s weaknesses and faults (in particular, her handling of issues pertaining to asylum seekers and to marriage equality), but its theatricality, structured around the celebration of a genuinely consequential personality, is one of rare exaltation.
The show is directed by Sarah Goodes, whose judicious sensitivity ensures that we see beyond the personal achievements of a remarkable woman, to consider the wider meanings of Gillard’s prominence. Goodes makes us think about the contexts of the ex-PM’s relentless mistreatment, along with the trails she had blazed, so that Julia becomes more than a tribute to one.
Set design by Renée Mulder features mirrored surfaces that remind us of the infinitely far-reaching effects of Gillard’s accomplishments. Lights by Alexander Berlage are gently rendered to keep unwavering focus on the protagonist. Video projections by Susie Henderson offer elegant augmentation, to the simple imagery being presented. Music and sound by Steve Francis, enhance the gravitas being explored, in the feminist themes that are so intrinsic to how we understand the story of Julia.
Actor Justine Clarke is electric as our national hero, exceedingly precise with her delivery of every line, and resolutely present, in every moment of her compelling embodiment of this much-loved character. Vigorously poignant, yet dazzlingly splendid with her humour, Clarke’s is a faultless performance on technical levels, but more importantly, a marvellously enchanting creation, that reminds us of what it means to lead with morality and integrity.
Jessica Bentley plays a subsidiary role, as a person of few words, but nonetheless omnipresent as a woman of lower status, to whom Gillard’s efforts are dedicated, and without whom Gillard was unable to rise. This incorporation of a secondary personality, one performed by a person of colour reveals quite importantly, an awareness around issues of racism in representations of Gillard’s legacy. Narratives of this nature frequently fall into traps of “white feminism”, and whilst this theatrical device is clearly well intentioned, there is a persistent discomfort in witnessing Bentley occupying various positions of silent servitude, all through the production.
It was certainly a momentous occasion when Gillard demonstrated that women too, are capable of ascending to the very pinnacle of positions. Whether or not it was a revolutionary event, is however debatable. If we concede that Gillard was an exception to the rule, we admit that little has changed, in the systems that we allow to run the world. On the other hand, to say that Gillard has not left behind permanent improvements, is manifestly inaccurate. Relying on any singular effort to change the world, is naïve and absurd. Heroes are gratifying as objects of admiration, but their greater purpose is to spur bigger numbers into action, when they have shown without ambiguity, what can be done when we believe in the good of our species.
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