Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Biggins excels in sharply accurate Keating portrayal

The Gospel According to Paul
Written and performed by Jonathan Biggins
Directed by Aarne Neeme
The Canberra Playhouse
Closing performance, 5pm, Sunday 31st March

Reviewed by Tony Magee

The lights go black, the opening orchestral chords of Mozart’s “Symphony No. 25” burst forth and Shazam! Lights up and there is Paul Keating standing in a tastefully decorated office. 

The desk and the chair are certainly not standard government issue but have been chosen by a man who understands and appreciates the finer things in life.  There is sound equipment that enables his love of classical music, and a decanter of scotch which gets a good work-out during his reminiscing.

With a centrepiece of a large landscape, possibly by Constable, the huge painting is flanked by smaller portraits of some of his heroes - Napoleon, James Cook, Wolfgang Mozart, and a woman whom I should know but can’t identify - it might be Florence Nightingale, or it might be one of the women whose deep love for him fortified him against all attacks in later life - his mother or his grandmother.

“If you’ve been loved, you can withstand almost anything”.

Jonathan Biggins as Paul Keating in "The Gospel According to Paul". Photo: Marina Neil

In a performance that bears some similarity to Barry Humphries’ alter-ego Sandy Stone, where we are taken on a historical journey of Sydney - not just Bankstown, but Hyde Park, Punchbowl and many other familiar places, Biggins’ portrayal of Keating is sharply accurate and successfully rounds up his strengths and weaknesses. This may be a send-up of sorts, but it is more a tribute to perhaps one of the last great “leaders” - a fact not lost on the audience, with plenty of comparisons between himself and the more recent dismal lot of pretenders:

“Kevin Rudd: TinTin meets Rainman”

“Tony Abbott: He thinks Misogyny was his third grade primary school teacher”.

“Malcolm: The only man who could wear an expensive leather jacket and make it look like vinyl”.

“Pauline Hanson: What a dreadful woman. If ever there was anything that might change my mind about assisted Euthanasia…”

We hear how he forms a mentorship relationship with the great Labor leader in NSW, the Big Fella, Jack Lang, who despite Keating’s tender age of 15 always addressed him as Mr Keating. Jack Lang, who was gazumped at the ribbon cutting for the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, by horseman Francis de Groot.

Curiously, the show omitted any reference to Keating’s controversial and uniquely generous Australian Artists Creative Fellowships, where $11.7 million was paid to 65 artists between 1989 and 1996 in the form of grants. The initial batch of artists included writers Frank Moorhouse, Les Murray, and Jack Davis, composer Richard Meale, sculptor Ken Unsworth and pianist Geoffrey Tozer.

Tozer was mentioned briefly, within the framework of artistic comparison of his most admired musicians, culminating with his highly venerated Tom Jones. And you can forget Sinatra, Tony Bennett and the rest. Keating talked us through a performance of “Delilah”, highlighting where the Welsh pop singer was comfortably within operatic high tenor range.

“Ahhh - the LP record! Remember those? Now, this one is signed by the great man himself: To Tom, with very best wishes, Paul Keating”.

We were reminded of Keating’s acerbic, theatrical and often hilarious debating style in The House, this one against his rival at the time, Andrew Peacock: 

“The leader of the opposition is more to be pitied than despised. After gallivanting around the world with Shirley MacLaine, the poor old thing is tired. The Liberal Party ought to put him down, like a faithful old dog, because he is of no use to it and of no use to the nation”.

But it’s not all humour and wit. There were moving moments - Biggins as Keating recounted the loss of his father aged only 60, whom he found collapsed and dead on the footpath a few houses up the street from their home. The story was gently accompanied by the soprano aria “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” from Handel’s opera “Rinaldo”:

“Leave me so I may weep in my abandonment…”

And political correctness? 

“In my day, Gender Fluidity was something you washed out of your underpants”.

One of the most powerful moments of the evening was the recollection of The Redfern Speech, one of Keating’s most famous. Delivered on December 10, 1992, the address was the first time an Australian political leader admitted the impact of white settlement:

"It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine that these things could be done to us."

More than anything else however, the actor states that music has been and still is the most important thing in Keating’s life. It all started with him hearing a recording of Richard Addinsells’ “Warsaw Concerto” as a small boy. 

“From that moment I was hooked”.

The show finished as it began, with classical music - this time, his beloved Mahler, a gentle and reflective passage from the “Resurrection Symphony”.

Biggins’ portrayal of Paul Keating is clearly a mammoth undertaking and one that sustained its complexities delivering the history, humour, emotion, triumphs and failures of one of Australia’s most colourful and oft quoted political figures, over one-and-a-half hours of brilliantly scripted, acted and produced theatre.