Jonathan Biggins describes his one-man performance as Paul Keating as “sort of like Harry Styles leaving One Direction to pursue a solo career”.
In this case, the “band” was Sydney Theatre Company’s long-running live satirical series The Wharf Revue*. Over around 15 years, Biggins honed his skills impersonating the former Australian prime minister in Revue performances – including one sketch that featured Kevin Rudd as Maria from The Sound of Music while Keating was the Mother Superior – but he realised there was more than enough material for a full-length one-man show.
“This play enables you to do much more because you go beyond just doing a caricature or a little stand-up sketch,” he tells InReview of The Gospel According to Paul.
“I like the idea of a theatrical biography because not many people do them and I thought he’s a good character to do because he’s funny, he’s entertaining, he’s a tremendously significant politician, he was a very strong leader at a time when there was virtually a vacuum of political leadership on the federal level… love him or loathe him, at least he did what he said he was going to do.
“There’s been a positive response to him, everywhere we’ve gone, as someone who was prepared to pursue policies that were not popular or were not vote winners, like Native Title or APEC.”
The Gospel According to Paul, which is both written and performed by Biggins, premiered in Sydney in 2019 before going on tour. The State Theatre Company SA had planned to present the play in Adelaide a year ago, but the pandemic forced it to reschedule it for 2021 – which, coincidentally, marks 30 years since Keating became prime minister.
During the 85-minute performance at the Dunstan Playhouse this month, Biggins will take audiences on a whirlwind ride that ranges over Keating’s life and landmark political achievements as treasurer in the Hawke Government and then Labor Party leader and prime minister, showcasing along the way his “eviscerating wit, rich rhetoric and ego the size of Everest”.
“This goes right back to his childhood and charts the development of his political career, because he was a fairly brutal politician,” Biggins says. “He didn’t take any prisoners yet at the same time, in that sort of Irish Catholic way, he wore his heart on his sleeve; he was very sentimental.
“His interest in the arts and creativity gives him a dimension that a lot of politicians may have but they’re too afraid to show now; you can’t be seen to be interested in music or theatre or opera. He’s a great character and he really didn’t care what people thought of him.”
Having grown up in a working-class suburb of Sydney where he left school at just 14, Keating joined the Labor Party at a young age and adopted former NSW premier Jack Lang as a mentor. His early approach to politics, says Biggins, was to make sure he was always well-prepared and knew “everything about everyone”.
“When he was in the New South Wales Labor Youth Council, he used to read the minutes of every branch meeting of every electorate. He knew all the committee members, he knew the names, he’d know who voted for who in every pre-selection battle, so when it came to his own pre-selection he knew which seat to go for; when there was a redistribution, he knew how to get the numbers.”
The Gospel According to Paul explores Keating’s relationship with Bob Hawke, as well as some of the key changes he oversaw – from major economic reforms including the floating of the Australian dollar, to the enacting of the Native Title Act and the creation of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) leaders’ forum.
Some of his financial reforms, Biggins acknowledges, have “come back to bite us”, and the play doesn’t shy away from that.
“But it’s very hard to be critical of someone who is rarely self-critical… we had to try to manage that and not make it just a piece of hagiography. We play his hubris and self-importance but in an affectionate way.”
He got away with murder and he still probably could
While the performance doesn’t delve too deeply into Keating’s private life, it does touch on some of his obsessions, including collecting antiques – at 15, he bought a watch that cost him three months’ pay, and he was known to browse the Christie’s auction catalogue during Cabinet meetings.
The former PM also had expensive taste in suits, favouring those by Italian design house Zegna. When he first saw Biggins’ impersonation of him in a sketch by the Wharf Revue, whose budget didn’t stretch quite that far, he commented, “Well, I don’t know why you bother doing me but I tell you this for nothing, I would have been wearing a better suit.”
An advantage for audiences is that Keating was known for his acerbic wit, so even if you’re not a fan or too young to remember his political career, there should still be plenty to amuse: “You can write great jokes for him,” Biggins says. “He got away with murder and he still probably could, even in these straightened times; his put-downs in parliament were legendary. There’s no one [these days] with that turn of phrase; there’s no one with those oratorical skills.”
Keating has seen The Gospel According to Paul several times and was apparently happy enough with the portrayal to also send his family along.
While Biggins clearly admires the man he embodies in the play, he makes no secret of the fact that he is less enamoured with contemporary politics and our current crop of political leaders.
Asked if there is any politician today whom he might like to portray in a future full-length show, he initially throws the question back: “Can you see anyone who’d be remotely interesting enough to sustain a night in the theatre? Anyone who’d done enough or achieved enough?” He then tosses around a few names, dismissing some as too serious, others as too lightweight, before concluding: “No, I can’t seriously think of anyone.”
State Theatre Company SA is presenting The Gospel According to Paul at the Dunstan Playhouse from April 19 to May 1.
*Unlike Harry and One Direction, Jonathan Biggins hasn’t actually parted company with The Wharf Revue. And while the Revue is currently finishing its final season with Sydney Theatre Company, the regular performers plan to keep it going independently.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.