Wednesday, March 22, 2023

JULIA - Sydney Theatre Company and Canberra Theatre Centre


Written by Joanna Murray-Smith – Directed by Sarah Goodes

Designed by Renee Mulder – Lighting designed by Alexander Berlage

Composer & Sound Designer – Steve Francis – Video designed by Susie Henderson.

Presented by Sydney Theatre Company and Canberra Theatre Centre

Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse 21 – 25th March 2023.

World Premiere performance on 21st March reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Justine Clark in "Julia"

“I will not” is a phrase which featured prominently in Julia Gillard’s vocabulary. It also features prominently in the speech which will forever define the political career of Australia’s first and only female Prime Minister.  Julia Gillard made hundreds of speeches during her political career but it is her speech denouncing misogyny for which she will be most remembered. 

Joanna Murray-Smith has crafted a powerful, compelling play around this speech which provides the context and details of the events which led up to it. A surprising thing about this play is that while most Australian adults are familiar with the details of the events and the personalities which are the subject of the play, how quickly they have passed from our everyday consciousness and how powerful it is to be reminded of them.

The play has two characters. Julia played by Justine Clarke and Young Woman played by Jessica Bentley. It is performed in Renee Mulder’s stark, triangular shiny setting with huge glass windows on two sides. These windows at times reflect the onstage characters, become transparent to reveal passing figures, or transformed by haunting atmospheric video images.

Throughout the entire 90 minutes of the play, which is presented without interruption, Justine Clarke never leaves the stage. She begins as a narrator; a storyteller speaking in the third person, outlining details of events and providing context.

Gradually she begins speaking in the first person and her voice takes on some of Julia Gillard’s recognisable mannerisms. Occasionally she addresses the audience directly, allowing herself a satisfied smile at their response to her witticisms.

However, although she is suggesting Julia, Clarke never attempts impersonation. Even when for the climax  she dons a red wig to deliver the famous misogyny speech, she remains the storyteller rather than the person.

This clever device disarms the viewer looking for imperfections in the impersonation, while keeping the focus on the inner motivations of the subject of the play. Murray-Smith admits in her program notes that while the details of the events are correct, the inner-motivations of the character are the product of the playwrights own imagination, thereby protecting the privacy of the real person while providing a stimulating examination of the behaviour of people around her.

Similarly Clarke has concentrated on creating her own essence and truth for her characterisation which cleverly sidesteps comparison with the real person, but which allows her to create a character which is truthful and compelling.

In this she is aided by the brilliant direction of Sarah Goodes who avoids presenting a documentary of the events, opting instead for creating an imaginative theatrical environment which signifies the events while stimulating the imaginations of the spectators.

In this she is aided by the Steve Francis’ moody soundscape, the atmospheric lighting design by Alexander Berlage and Susie Henderson’s striking video images.      

Because Goodes mentioned at a post-performance function that there were likely to be some adjustments to the production prior to its Sydney opening it may be worth mentioning a couple of personal responses for her consideration.

Throughout the play the enigmatic character played by Jessica Bentley identified as Young Woman moves through the action, positioning or removing furniture and properties, providing water and towels for Clarke, and sometimes assisting her with on-stage costume changes.

 Only at the end of the pIay is it revealed that she is representing the new generation of young women. Elsewhere her presence is often a distraction causing the observer to wonder whether she’s meant to be a stage hand or Julia’s Personal Assistant.

Also at the end of the play Clarke’s delivery of the Julia’s misogyny speech is so powerful and affecting that it felt that play should end there. The following epilogue, although a spectacular and beautiful theatrical creation, somehow felt more like an anti-climax.

These small quibbles aside, there is no doubting that “Julia” is an important play. Particularly notable for the way it holds a mirror to behaviour which has become increasingly accepted as ‘the norm’ by contemporary society. It is also a remarkable showcase for the talents of Justine Clarke, brilliantly directed, and mightily entertaining. The Canberra season is already sold out. Don’t miss it when it comes your way.

                                                           Images by Lucas Coch

This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.