It’s the world premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s play, Julia, in the Canberra Theatre Playhouse and I’m swept up in the moment as the audience responds to the lines delivered by Justine Clarke in the starring role. People are variously cheering, clapping, laughing, groaning, and calling out words of affirmation.
The line that really tickles me, and everyone else, is her description of Kevin Rudd’s demise in 2010 as “suicide by ego”. There is an atmosphere in this theatre that I haven’t seen with many plays before, and if the audience reaction is anything to go by, Julia should be a hit wherever it’s performed.
Joanna Murray-Smith was somewhat reluctant about writing the play when it was first suggested to her but the more she researched and delved into the character of Julia Gillard the more she wanted to explore what led Australia’s 27th Prime Minister to that now very famous misogyny speech.
On October 9, 2012, Gillard stood up in Parliament to oppose a motion put forward by the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, calling for the resignation of the Speaker, Peter Slipper. In moving the motion, Abbott accused Gillard and the government of sexism because they were keeping Slipper in the job despite revelations that he had sent sexist text messages.
Julia Gillard began her speech with the words….
“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. The government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man — not now, not ever.”
Gillard’s speech was condemned by most of the Australian mainstream media and especially the conservative and right-wing commentators who used it as part of their continuing attacks on Australia’s first female Prime Minister. However, on social media and among the population at large it went viral and became widely popular. It was also reported and acclaimed around the world. It became the subject of many Tik Tok videos, memes and was even translated into a song.
Until that day, Gillard had made it a point not to call out the rampant sexism to which she was subjected – commentary on her hair, her clothes, her body, and her decision not to have children. Weirdly, the empty fruit bowl in her kitchen, shown during a television interview, was interpreted as evidence of her ‘barrenness’.
What led to that moment in Parliament in 2012 is the subject of Joanna Murray-Smith’s play, Julia, a joint production of the Canberra Theatre Centre and the Sydney Theatre Company. The play explores the experiences and the people and events that influenced Gillard, from the thoughts and advice of her father and the plight of Welsh coal miners in her country of birth, to her political experiences in the Australian Labor Party.
Justine Clarke’s extensive record in theatre, film and TV has culminated in what she calls one of the hardest roles she has played. With the assistance of Jessica Bentley playing the ‘Young Woman’, Clarke is on stage for 90 minutes continuously. During this time, she delivers memorable, witty, and emotionally charged lines that had the Canberra audience captivated, totally engaged, and responding vocally.
In writing those lines, award-winning Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith unravels the often murky world of politics, power and personal morality to examine Gillard as a person and pragmatist who is not always comfortable with her own party and the compromises she has to make.
The script is nothing short of brilliant and creates a momentum which along with Justine Clarke’s tireless performance means that it never drags, building inevitably to that speech. It carried the politically savvy Canberra audience to prolonged applause and three curtain calls. The play is masterly directed by Sarah Goodes, while designer Renee Mulder has created a minimalist set that along with the video and lighting works perfectly for this type of production.
Gillard’s speech is as cogent now as it was in 2012 and it still inspires many young women who probably never heard it back then. The play gives those words a new understanding and context. I’ve admired Justine Clarke in many other roles, but this is her best by far.
Julia is on at The Playhouse in the Canberra Theatre Centre until Saturday. It will then have a run in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House from March 31 till May 13. To book, visit the Sydney Theatre Company website.
With thanks to the Canberra Theatre Centre for hosting us at the world premiere of Julia. It was such a privilege to attend this outstanding production. Photos supplied by the Canberra Theatre Centre.
If you’d like to know more about the Canberra Theatre Centre’s exciting 2023 program, make sure you visit our earlier post here.