28 October 2022

Julia: Groundbreaking Australian theatre a decade on from misogyny speech

| Emma Batchelor
Justine Clarke in Julia

Julia will show at Canberra Theatre Centre from 18-25 March, 2023. Photo: Rene Vaile, Samuel Cooper.

On 9 October, 2012, Julia Gillard gave what quickly became known as the misogyny speech. And now, 10 years later, a new Australian play exploring the lead-up to this propulsive moment in Australian political history has been announced.

A co-production of the Canberra Theatre Centre and Sydney Theatre Company, Julia will follow the life and career of Julia Gillard in the lead-up to that world-famous speech. Fittingly, three highly regarded women are at the helm of the production: celebrated playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, Helpmann Award-winning director Sarah Goodes, and much-loved actor Justine Clarke.

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The world premiere of the play will take place at the Canberra Theatre, just kilometres from Parliament House, where Australia’s first, and so far only, woman prime minister spoke in reaction to accusations made by opposition leader Tony Abbott. On opening in the nation’s capital, Murray-Smith agrees that “it is absolutely the right place for Julia to open”.

”It is also terrifying,” she goes on to say. “In terms of political knowledge and experience, everyone in the audience will be more qualified than I am. What I am bringing to the subject, however, is an imaginative perspective on an interior life. And that I feel as qualified as anyone to do. I am not offering a political assessment of who she is, or a political judgement on her administration, I am offering a much more intimate investigation than that.”

In dealing with the life and experiences of a real, living person, Murray-Smith felt that she owed Julia Gillard the courtesy of consultation.

“I contacted her office right at the beginning of the process and explained to them what I wanted to do. I said that I wouldn’t do it if Ms Gillard didn’t want me to. The response I got back was that while Ms Gillard will not endorse the play, she absolutely doesn’t want to stand in the way of it being written.”

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This response gave Murray-Smith the freedom to proceed and, with the Misogyny Speech as a starting point, she began striving for an understanding of who Julia Gillard was to herself in the lead-up to that moment.

“I am interested in the psychological state that allowed her to get to that point of communicating her anger and frustration out loud,” Murray-Smith explains. “The more that I have read, the more research I have conducted, I have come to understand that what Julia Gillard managed to do in her time as prime minister was quite extraordinary under the circumstances.”

The impact of the misogyny speech has been the topic of endless think pieces, international media coverage and now a book written by Gillard herself. Not Now, Not ever, Ten years on from the misogyny speech offers the author’s own reflections on that moment as well as those of other Australian women.

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Among so much publicly available information, what, then, can a play add to that conversation?

Murray-Smith qualifies: “As a writer, I wasn’t interested in regurgitating what we already know. My drama is generally intimate and offers perspectives on the way that people think and feel and behave. Like all dramatists, I am interested in decoding the difference between the public self and the private self. What makes a play the right format for this story is not only the level of intimacy possible, but that the speech itself given in parliament is itself a piece of theatre.”

An understanding of the public and private selves of our politicians and public figures seems to be an endless source of fascination to us.

Plays such as The Audience by Peter Morgan, which was adapted into the film The Queen and then extended into television series The Crown, have attempted to unpick the interiority of a notoriously opaque British monarch. Closer to home, Jonathan Biggins’ The Gospel According to Paul takes a satirical yet poignant look at the life of Paul Keating, while each year the Wharf Revue playfully lampoons all our politicians, examining them both personally and professionally.

In Julia, however, the creative team offers something unique. Murray-Smith confirms that “we tend to either write factually about our politicians or we tend to write satirically”.

”What we don’t tend to do is write imaginatively about them. In doing that, this play presents a perspective that isn’t available anywhere else,” she says.

Julia will play at the Canberra Theatre Centre, from 18 to 25 March, 2023. Tickets are now on sale at canberratheatrecentre.com.au.

Original Article published by Emma Batchelor on Riotact.

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