Popular Australian actor Jonathan Biggins is currently touring Australia with his new 90-minute production, “The Gospel According to Paul”. Jonathan expertly captures the voice, mannerisms and persona of Paul Keating in this one-man show, but he also completed many, many hours of research and wrote the script – ultimately leading to an on-stage performance that is both funny and insightful …
Hi Jonathan. I’ve caught up with while you’re in Wyong today … How’s The Gospel According to Paul tour going so far?
It’s been going extremely well! We added two extra shows in Canberra, and they sold out, we sold out the Civic Theatre in Newcastle. We’ve been to Dubbo and Tamworth and Cessnock in the past week and tonight we’re at Wyong, and it’s sold out!
I think people are just responding to Mr Keating! In the course of the political leadership we’ve seen in the past 15 years – love him or hate him – I think people are saying, “Well, why can’t we have politicians like that anymore?” I think the show’s proven very popular for that reason.
You’ve been portraying Paul Keating for quite some time now – many people would be familiar with your performances from Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf Revue. Why did you choose Paul, in particular, as a character to perform?
The good thing about him from a theatrical point of view is that he, himself, is very theatrical. He had a great parliamentary persona and character; he was very funny, very acerbic, and he could say things and get away with them – because he had a certain panache. That’s always attractive as a character to play!
And then, the more I looked into it, the more I realised he was quite unusual. He left school at the age of 14, he’d never been to university … I got a book of the speeches he gave after he left parliament, and they ranged from lectures on new political strategies for the next 30 years, to reconstructing the Berlin Potsdamer Platz from an urban panning perspective, a lecture on decorative silver at the Powerhouse Museum, to an off the cuff obituary for an antique dealer in Sydney. He just had an extraordinary range of knowledge and interests for an Irish Catholic boy from Bankstown, born in the Second World War. It’s a fascinating ride!
What he and Hawke did to completely transform the economy and push through legislation and an agenda that really hasn’t been replicated since was quite extraordinary!
The relationship between Keating and Hawke was certainly an interesting one. How much do you explore this in the production?
We do a bit. I think both Hawke and Keating – although they’d probably never admit it – were much better because they were together. I think they have a great affection for each other, but like close siblings, they both love and hate each other. I think that’s the paradox of that relationship, which was so fruitful …
There must have been a huge amount of research on your part to write this production. How did you go about it?
It took a couple of years to write – not full-time, but on and off. There are a lot of books and information available, but the difficult thing was to condense all the detail … how do you condense all those years of economic reforms, ten budgets in five years, the strategic decentralisation of the Reserve Bank? This was a time when governments still fixed interest rates and exchange rates, the dollar hadn’t floated … Now, people may ask if that’s been such a great idea in the long run. Was it such a great idea to privatise the Commonwealth Bank, in the light of the Royal Commission?
But certainly, all the changes made to the economy – that was the hard part to condense into 90 minutes and still keep it entertaining.
And then, going back to the early days as well … the Whitlam Government, the dismissal of Malcolm Fraser …
I think the audience kind of falls into two camps – there are those who lived through it all, and go, “Ahhh – yeah! I remember that!” And then there are the younger people who’ve learned about Paul Keating through YouTube and history books, and they’ve still got an appreciation and knowledge of him – and they miss him, even though they never knew him!
You spend 90 minutes on stage – on your own – with each performance. That’s no easy task! Do you feel you have much in common with Paul, now you’ve spent so much time playing his character?
Well … my children do say I’m turning more into him! A grumpy old man – and I start talking like him sometimes! It is hard to get it out of your system and think of something else.
It can get a bit lonely up there on stage. Sometimes you think, “Can someone else just start talking – please?” Give me a break, and the audience a break, because they must get sick of hearing my voice!
A one man show can definitely be lonely, but it also has its rewards. You can’t really blame anyone else if it goes wrong … but you can take all the credit if it goes right! (Laughs.)
What legacy would you say Paul Keating has left Australia?
I think … a lot of what he wanted to put in place has been eroded by subsequent governments. As a lasting legacy, there are certainly pragmatic elements – like compulsory superannuation. He’s a great champion of the arts …
I think the legacy is that Keating and Hawke have turned Australia into an international society … an internationally competitive country that’s made people more forward-thinking, less apathetic, and made us realise that we couldn’t live off the sheep’s back or the miner’s quarry forever. That’s a kind of enthusiasm we really need to recapture …
Interview: Jo Robinson.
See The Gospel According to Paul on May 10 at 7:30pm.
Tickets adults $55, conc. $49, under 18 $29.
Also check out the Glasshouse Comedy Plus Package, where you can see three great shows for $126.90. Visit glasshouse.org.au or call the Box Office: 6581 8888 for details.
Photo Brett Boardman