Upon attending ‘Once Were Leaders: An Evening with Max Gillies’ at the Arts Centre it didn’t take me very long to realise two very important facts:
1) I was probably the only one in the room who had absolutely no idea who Max Gillies was.
2) I was probably one of the few members of the audience too young to actually remember him.
Sitting there at the table, waiting for the blank stage to fill with performance, I began to wonder whether this should be taken into account. Should the fact that I was clearly outside of the target audience for the show impact upon my perception of its quality?
Having read the press release before the show commenced, I had a relative idea as to who Gillies was: a famed impersonator of political figures who had built his reputation on such shows as The Gillies Report and Gillies Republic. But other than this and a few other details covered in the release, I was ultimately going in dark. I was a young, naïve man going into a realm of history that I am for the most part relatively ignorant of.
The key question that I constantly wrestled with throughout the evening was whether or not Gillies’ impersonation of political figures of past was still relevant to today’s audience. Gillies tackle this question, by using his one-man show of impersonations to ask whether Australian political leadership has truly fallen in quality or that perhaps the passing of time has provoked the public to look upon the past with more fondness then what it deserves.
Gillies’ ability to keep his show relevant to a new audience for me was a vital deciding point in whether or not it was engaging. As someone unpersuaded by the nostalgia that may be the central pulling point for other audience members, I kept a keen eye on Gillies the entire way through. Gillies’ emphasis on older ‘characters’ such as Margaret Thatcher and Bob Hawke rather than Tony Abbott meant that the performance felt like it was a little too dated. Additionally, the more serious commentary that Gillies provided in between impersonations commonly felt oddly formal, creating a tonal clash. The mixture of speech with impersonations often left me feeling like I was watching a comedic formal address more than a comedy performance. I can’t be entirely sure if this was the intended effect. None the less, it is this more serious commentary that clearly elevates Gillies’ comedy above just mere laughs, giving his work a certain weight.
While Gillies’ impersonations of Bob Hawke and Margaret Thatcher may feel ‘dated’ and a little too far from the current world, the impersonations themselves are quite precise, acute and spot on and this is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Gillies’ show. After all, it is what has established Gillies’ reputation. Other impersonations, like that of Kevin Rudd however are far less precise and Gillies simply drifts back into his own voice. The impersonation of Rudd eventually becomes less of an impersonation and more of a simple mockery.
A key fault of Gillies’ is the blocking of his performance. For the most part, Gillies stays stationary behind his pulpit, which means that occasionally his performances feel restricted and constrained. I commonly wished for Gillies to move more to give his performance more energy and to merely change the pace. Any real stage movement did not occur until the final monologue of the show. Combined with the blocking, was the actual structuring of Gillies’ piece, which appears to be relatively loose. Gillies drifts from impersonation to impersonation without a whole sense of narrative drive. Occasionally I found myself lost in the impersonations, unable to find a proper beginning, middle and end.
These elements aside however, Gillies is clearly an expert with the construction of humour and jokes and with time I came to realise why it is that his performances have resonated with audiences of past. Gillies skilfully sets up joke after joke, the laughs of the audience firing off like cannon balls. Gillies is a master at set up and payoff, building his jokes carefully before delivering a crescendo that leaves the entire room laughing. While many of the jokes went completely over my head, I can appreciate why they are so well loved and cherished. The jokes are delivered with thoughtful pacing, adept execution and piercing delivery. There were some moments during the performance, in which the audience could barely breathe between laughs as Gillies moved from strength to strength. Due to my own age, I commonly found myself on the outside, but I could always perceive as to why this man has become as well loved as he is: his jokes are easily understood, they aren’t in anyway pretentious nor do they commonly descend to cheap crudeness. Put simply, it is punch line after punch line.
After the performance was over, I felt as if I had surely bore witness to something brilliant and crazily funny, but due to my own circumstances, had still felt completely alienated from. I feel even if I were to research Gillies to the sharpest degree, I would still not feel the full impact of the show as it was intended to feel. This makes me wonder, if a show is truly a masterpiece, does this automatically require that it be timeless? Does the fact that some shows can only be found engaging by a particular group from a particular time, limit its value? Perhaps I am to blame for not researching Gillies thoroughly enough, albeit at all, having only read the pre-press paper. Yet, as a middle class 19 year old, could watching endless You-Tube videos and reading countless Wikipedia pages ever hope to place in me the sense that I lived through the times that Gillies commentates on? Does my opinion on the show even matter if I’m not the one it is aimed at?
I don’t have easy answers for these questions and so blessed with both ignorance and youth, I watch on as the relics of the past play out on a stage delivered for an audience beyond my years. Enchanted, they’ll clap on for writing made to sing to their ears only, while I watch on, a silent fool, left only to guess what pieces of this work will remain in the years yet to come.