Sunday 9 June 2024

Julia review

12 years ago, Julia Gillard delivered a speech that was voted as the most unforgettable moment of Australian TV history by Guardian readers. The "misogyny speech" was a heart pounding 15-minute parliamentary address by Australia's first and only female Prime Minister. In Julia, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith entrancingly brings to the stage pockets of the former Prime Minister's life, from when she was an 8-year-old child to her formative years and her ultimate ascension as Prime Minister of Australia while centering on this world famous speech.

Murray-Smith has done an exceptional job in not only showcasing these specific episodes of Gillard's life, but putting them together where the narrative can flow and build organically. While these may be stories that we know - like the barren fruit bowl and the infamous outcome of her professional relationship with Kevin Rudd - hearing them here, together, you begin to comprehend the enormity of abuse and harassment Gillard faced during her term as Prime Minister.

Justine Clarke is a revelation as Gillard, capturing the younger version of herself with much excitement and spirited by life's possibilities. Perhaps there's a glint of naivety. Clarke presents in her natural voice when speaking directly to the audience and only with Gillard's accent when quoting her, with incredible guidance by voice coach Jennifer White, who also did fantastic work with Heather Mitchell in the recent production of RBG in Melbourne.

Director Sarah Goodes has Clarke slowly transforming into the Prime Minister with her regular wardrobe changes. Shoes, tops and blazers come and go, depicting the period of life Gillard is in and also serve as a countdown as we edge towards 9 October 2012. The sense of freedom and hope that Gillard envisioned in her younger years is beautifully conveyed in a musical interlude in collaboration with composer and sound designer Steve Francis and Susie Henderson's video design.

Francis' score is a journey on its own with the initial sound feeling like a small heartbeat which gradually moves into bigger moments. Silence is equally as powerful in Julia, with some critical dialogue spoken in a deafening quietness. Henderson's images projecting on the glass walls provides emotional heft, that compel us to acknowledge their presence but don't distract us from Clarke's performance.

Jessica Bentley plays The Young Woman. It's a minor role, but a vital one in representing the women that Gillard's bills and work impacted while at the same time, calling to mind the women that were not always advocated for by Gillard's politics, particularly as the character is performed by a woman of colour with minimal lines and generally in a subservient position. This doesn't detract from the good that Gillard achieved, but rather offers a fuller picture of who she was, shortcomings included.

While similarities can be made between Julia and the aforementioned production of RBG, what makes Julia stand out is that it is based on a woman who worked tirelessly for Australia and the Australian people. Gillard formed a minority government and in that time passed an impressive 570 bills, including the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the early rollout of the National Broadband Network so we all feel the weight and results of Gillard's work.

The question of was it all worth it plays out throughout Julia. After all the personal attacks and harsher criticisms she received based on her gender, and not appointed the same respect as her male counterparts, will we ever see another female Prime Minister in this country? According to Gillard, and to Julia, we should, and we will. A commanding performance by Clarke with an extremely talented and creative team ensures we witness the highs and lows of one of the best Prime Minister's this country has had.


Venue: Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Blv, Southbank
 until 6 July | Mon - Tues 6:30pm, Wed - Sat 7:30pm,  Sat 2pm
90 minutes
 $57 - $150
 Melbourne Theatre Company

Image credit: Prudence Upton

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