Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Gospel According to Paul

 The Gospel According to Paul, written and performed by Jonathan Biggins.  Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, March 26-31, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 26

Jonathan Biggins as Paul Keating, determined schemer.

According to the gospel according to Jonathan Biggins, Paul Keating said of recently-ejected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that he was “the only man who could make a real leather jacket look like vinyl”.  For me this one line ecapsulated both the perspicacity of Biggins and the subtle contumely of the real Keating.  It does not matter whether Keating actually ever said it: if he didn’t, we have no doubt he could have.

The Gospel According to Paul places Biggins one step above the other significant playwright of Australian Labor tradition – the late Bob Ellis who, with historian Robin McLachlan, showed us the Light on the Hill in A Local Man, his study of Ben Chifley.  (My review of its first performance in August 2004 and a later feature article in February 2007 were published in The Canberra Times; my original text can be accessed at )

The ending of A Local Man might show Ben Chifley as a match for Paul Keating:

Just three days before his death:    (The lights begin to flicker.)  BEN: Hang on, the lights are going off ....  Bloody Liberal government.  Bunnerong and Bungeroff.  (The lights go out.)

Ellis successfully created the character of Ben Chifley in a script which is a major achievement, welding art and accurate history, revealing what were Ben’s personal devils, clawing away at his sense of self-worth.  In 2004, Bob Ellis said to me, as we discussed the then current Prime Minister’s understanding of history, “John Howard’s motto is ‘Ignorance is strength’ while Chifley took the opposite view that ‘Knowledge is power’ and should be made available to everyone.”

Ellis also told me “Bob Hawke wept on my shoulder” and “Bob Carr cried, perhaps the only time since his father’s funeral” after seeing A Local Man in its season at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre.

Keating, in a setting representing his interests in art, music
and the 18th Century, at a self-analytical moment.

Yet Jonathan Biggins has done more.  Not only has he done the research, acknowledging “the three authors who I leant on most: Troy Bramston, Kerry O’Brien and Don Watson” and written the script, but then performs in the character he has created, directly in conversation with his audience – in a manner so true in word, intonation and physical action that we could feel without a shadow of doubt that this was Paul Keating himself on stage – even when his microphone played up and he had to duck into the wings to have it fixed.

Keating's slide show includes defeating Bob Hawke as Prime Minister
20 December 1991

As Ellis and McLachlan did for Ben Chifley, though the weeping for Paul Keating is more likely to be through laughing, so Biggins has thoroughly fulfilled his hope – in his Creator’s Note – to “shed the occasional light on the contradictions and complexities of a great leader whose vision, courage and determination are sadly missing in what passes for our contemporary political class.  Do better, ya mugs!”

Definitely not to be missed.

Photos by Brett Boardman