On November 11, 1975, an event took place that remains one of the most controversial and polarising moments in Australia’s political history.
Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his Labor Government. He appointed the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, as a caretaker Prime Minister until an election could take place. It’s an event that is widely regarded as the most significant constitutional crisis in Australian history and, to this day, Whitlam remains the only prime minister to have his tenure end in such a way.
This event and its key players are the subject of a brand-new musical that will have its “pre-world premiere” next week at Sydney’s Seymour Centre. Award-winning independent musical theatre company Squabbalogic are bringing The Dismissal to the stage, which has been written by Jay James-Moody and Blake Erickson, with music and lyrics by Laura Murphy.
“The story of The Dismissal is one that has always fascinated me,” James-Moody tells Theatre People. “The idea of living in a democracy that still has such ties to the monarchy and the idea that an unelected official could have such a profound hand in taking away the people’s choice, I always thought was a really fascinating and frightening event in a western democracy,
“And then, of course, all of the characters involved are larger than life and there are all of these internal machinations … I was always perplexed as to why there hasn’t really been a major stage telling of this story. It’s so theatrical on paper.”
James-Moody confirms that he didn’t have to look too far into the details of this event to find the dynamic narrative needed to create a good musical.
“All of the pieces were there,” he says. “It’s been tricky because there’s so much detail and so many moving parts and different things that influence the events, and so part of our job in writing it has been to work out what is crucial to the audience’s understanding of it.”
In its early form, he says, the show had an entire song devoted to explaining how the Constitution works.
“We got rid of that pretty early on because we realised that, really, a deep understanding of the Constitution wasn’t important to understanding the human side of the story, on which the show focuses more,” James-Moody explains.
While the sacking of a prime minister by a governor-general hasn’t reoccurred in the decades since Whitlam’s dismissal, James-Moody notes that it could theoretically still happen today.
“Nothing was done to avoid that kind of scenario happening again, it’s still possible,” he says. “But we’ve experienced it a number of times to a certain degree over [recent] years, where we’ve had prime ministers deposed internally. And, of course, in our system, you’re voting for the party, not the leader, but the leader is a significant part of that package and the reasons why people vote. So, to go through so many prime ministers in [recent] years seemingly without having our collective voice heard, whatever the outcome is, is a disturbing thing.”
Asked to clarify what is meant by “pre-world premiere”, James-Moody assures us that audiences at the Seymour Centre can expect a fully-staged version of where the show is at, at this point in time.
“That’s certainly our aim and how it’s looking in the room at the moment,” he says.
The idea of the upcoming shows is to gauge audience response and then to do further work on the musical.
“We just don’t do this kind of development in Australia,” says James-Moody. “It’s written, it’s put on and that’s that. We’re saying, ‘This is the show now, but we want to know how people will respond to it and we intend to make further improvements before we say it’s finished’.
“I anticipate that should the show have some impact on audiences and people like it, we will continue to refine it ahead of a further major production down the track. It will certainly be as fully-staged as anything else we’ve ever done before.”
The cast includes Matthew Whittet as Norman Gunston, Justin Smith as Gough Whitlam, Marney McQueen as Sir John Kerr, Andrew Cutcliffe as Malcolm Fraser, and an ensemble featuring Blake Appelqvist, Georgie Bolton, Christian Charisiou, Jodie Harris, Monique Salle and Bishanyia Vincent.
“For some reason, from the moment that I thought of doing this as a musical five or six years ago, I thought Justin Smith had to be Gough Whitlam,” James-Moody says. “When it came time to cast it, I started to get really nervous because I thought he was the only person who I could imagine in the role … Thankfully, the stars aligned.
“But then to fill out the rest of the cast with so many amazing people … is so thrilling and deeply rewarding as someone who has written it as well.”
James-Moody also talks about his hopes for The Dismissal beyond its pre-world premiere season.
“It’s something that we do hope to share with the rest of the country, when we get a chance to revise the show after this production,” he says. “I’m a big fan of Casey Bennetto’s show Keating. It has informed The Dismissal to a degree and its success around the country is something that we aspire to, and we hope that our show will connect with a large audience in the same way that a show like that did.”
THE DISMISSAL– SEASON DETAILS
DATES: 18 to 22 June 2019
TIMES: 7:30pm all days; 2pm on Wednesday 19 June and Saturday 22 June
BOOKINGS: https://www.seymourcentre.com/events/event/the-dismissal/ or (02) 9351 7940
TICKETS:Full $74 | Concession $66 | Under 25s $35