Jonathan Biggins’ new show serves up Keating’s greatest hits, but never quite escapes its sketch show origins, says Ben Brooker
More than any other recent Labor leader, Paul Keating is most like the progressive middle class’s dream of itself: urbane, cosmopolitan, fundamentally decent. It must go at least some way to explain why he is so often the subject of mythologising by our theatre-makers (remember Keating!, the “musical we had to have”?) That, and the fact that his leadership looks better every day in the light of the incompetent, anti-intellectual nonentities purportedly running the country right now.
The Gospel According to Paul, written and performed by the Wharf Revue’s Jonathan Biggins and directed by Aaarne Neeme, promises the theatrical equivalent of Russell Marks’ similarly-titled The Book of Paul: The Wit and Wisdom of Paul Keating (2014). I went in expecting a full rotation of Keating’s greatest hits – his famously withering putdowns, his unusually visionary policy prescriptions, and so on – and I wasn’t disappointed. Despite Biggins’ curmudgeonly, showbiz-resistant persona – the show opens with some deliberately awkward audience interaction, and is laced with meta-theatrical snark directed at his NIDA-trained producer – it’s all pretty crowd-pleasing stuff.
Biggins, despite bearing little physical resemblance to his considerably older subject, has been portraying Keating for years in Wharf Revue skits and is impeccable at it, from the arch Blacktown accent to the preening, hands-on-hips physicality. It’s hard to escape the feeling that The Gospel According to Paul is first and foremost a vehicle for an outstanding impersonation. Biggins has written well-received plays before, but its dramaturgy rarely rises above that of a competent biopic, never quite convincingly transitioning from its sketch comedy origins to something more substantial. The few times Biggins breaks into song hint at the more formally daring show this might have been.
With the aid of an old-school slide projector, Biggins’ Keating takes us on a whistle-stop tour of his Western Sydney childhood, political apprenticeship in the New South Wales Youth Council, and mentorship with former premier Jack Lang. There’s no mention of the young Keating’s social conservatism, which saw him decry increased female participation in the workforce and vote against the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
There’s relish in recollections of factional biffo – Keating, joining Labor at the age of 15 after having dropped out of high school, aligns himself with the party’s right wing – and touching reflections on the influence of his mother and grandmother. We’re warned, however, that details of his personal life, including his first marriage, to Dutch-born flight attendant Annita van Iersel, will be scarce – in this, at least, Keating proves a reliable narrator.
Keating offers witty, blow-by-blow accounts of his election to the House of Representatives as the Member for Blaxland, centred around the suburb of Bankstown where he grew up, and his ascendance in 1975 to the Whitlam cabinet as Minister for Northern Australia. The story of Keating’s rise to power, seeded in 1983 by the beginning of his fateful partnership with Bob Hawke, is told both proudly and ruefully. The scars remain raw from Hawke’s reneging on a deal struck in 1988 that would have seen Hawke resign in favour of Keating following the 1990 general election.
We’re reminded of Keating’s transformative macro-economic reforms as treasurer under Hawke – most notably the floating of the dollar in 1983 – and his acknowledgment of the dispossession of First Nations peoples as prime minister; the still-remarkable Redfern address, while not given in its entirety, is one of the few historical speeches of Keating’s to be quoted from verbatim. The passing of the Native Title Act in 1993 might be his proudest achievement. Might be.
Mark Thompson’s set (ably lit by Verity Hampson) places all of this somewhere between the literal and the parodic. There’s a European desk and chair, 18th century portrait paintings framed by Ionic columns, and numerous examples of Keating’s famous collectorship of antique French clocks. A generous record collection testifies to his love of Mahler and Tom Jones, and prompts one of the show’s less expected reminiscences, of his management in the 1960s of failed Australian rock band The Ramrods.
This is an old-fashioned kind of show, both in its construction and its studied refusal – apart from a few, rapturously-received barbs directed at certain currently serving members – to engage with the socio-political zeitgeist. A slide of Keating’s male-dominated cabinet prompts the quip that it’s “not very Emily’s List” (it was, of course, “a different time”). One of the evening’s more savage broadsides is reserved, oddly, for Twitter, which feels like projection from Biggins. Never far beneath the surface is a disdain for “political correctness” that feels generational, equally at home here as in the pages of a pro-Coalition tabloid. Originally slated for last year’s State Theatre Company season, it all feels, with its at times self-congratulatory boomer nostalgia, like a very pre-pandemic piece of theatre.
Casey Bennetto described Keating! as “ridiculously pro-Paul Keating”, and the same could be said of Biggins’ show. The problem with his portrayal of Keating as a more than usually self-important politician is that it doesn’t leave much room for interrogation of his political record. When the vexed issue of mandatory detention arises, Keating acknowledges the policy began during his time as prime minister, but that under his leadership refugees were detained for months rather than years, as became the norm with his successors.
Such caveats, rare as they are, feel defensive rather than illuminating, but are indicative of the kind of show this is – one that shores up Keating’s already heavily mythologised legacy without exposing the assumptions that underpin it. Satire can’t escape the cliches and stereotypes that have affixed to its targets, but the laughs feel cheapened when they’re indulged to the extent they are here.
There is, nevertheless, something undoubtedly bracing about The Gospel According to Paul. Whatever my reservations, Biggins is right to characterise Keating as a genuinely forward-looking prime minister whose reforms – in stark contrast with the oily, self-preserving manoeuvres of Scott Morrison and his cronies – seem destined to be remembered, proof of the old maxim that winning elections is, ultimately, about changing the country.
The Gospel According to Paul, written and performed by Jonathan Biggins, directed by Aarne Neeme, designed by Mark Thompson, lighting design by Verity Hampson, sound and video design by David Bergman. STCSA at Adelaide Festival Centre, until May 1. Bookings.