The Gospel According to Paul is the smash hit one man comedy about Paul Keating coming to the Arts Centre, Melbourne, next month. Perhaps most notably Treasurer to Bob Hawke – and his increasingly eager successor –  Keating became our 24th Prime Minister in 1991. The work is bought to the stage by one of Australia’s favourite comic actors, Jonathan Biggins and it traces a critical time in Australian history and the man that shaped it.

“Any Australian who lives in the global economy should remember Paul Keating because he and the Hawke Labor government put us there – for better of worse,” says Biggins. “He personally rates compulsory superannuation, APEC and the Native Title Act as his biggest achievements. It’d be interesting to know what he would’ve done about climate change. He was very much on the side of the average working person – as he said of his time in office: ‘I wanted to lift 95% of the people up, not 5%.'”

Distilling the essence of his leadership into 90 minutes and showcasing Keating’s eviscerating wit, rich rhetoric and ego the size of Everest, Biggins focusses on landmark political achievements as well as personal obsessions: a man who grew up in the tribe of the Labor Party and gained an education at the knee of Jack Lang, who treated economics as an artform, and demanded we confront with rigorous honesty the wrongs of our colonial past.

Biggins explains that the work has been framed around the question of leadership because love him or loathe him, Keating was a leader who did what he said he was going to do. “He’s in stark contrast to the vacuous political leaders we have today and audiences of all political persuasions recognise that,” says Biggins. “He’s also a natural character for the stage – funny, intelligent, entertaining and emotional . A working class Irish Catholic who left school at fourteen and then engineered some of the greatest economic and political reforms this country has ever seen – why not play him?!”

Biggins says that the genesis of the project began about four or five years ago, springing from Biggins’ Keating sketches in the Wharf Revue for many years before that. “I thought he warranted a longer form piece and I also liked the idea of a theatrical biography – you get a lot of biopics and books obviously but a stage biography is very rare,” he says. “There was a lot of reading to do, difficult to condense a life as full as his into 90 minutes, and then we went through a few drafts with Aarne Neeme, the director, before getting the final version for three weeks of rehearsal and the premiere.”

A tell-all of sorts, Biggins does steer clear of Keating’s private life, although touched on briefly, because he is a very private person and has always said he’d rather be judged for his achievements than anything else. Biggins chose now because, he says,  the political process is being degraded by leaders (and voters) who worry more about popularity than anything else. “There’s this bizarre race to prove that a politician standing for office is more ordinary than anyone else. Keating was not afraid to tell us (often) that he was extraordinary and deserved to be given the job,” he says.

For all of his achievements, Biggins does acknowledge that, on a personal level, he didn’t agree with Keating’s privatisation agenda, especially the CBA, and he thinks the decision to make union membership non-compulsory effectively spelt the end of the union movement as a major political force. “They also introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers – admittedly, the people were only supposed to be in it for a few months as they were processed but we’ve seen what happened when Howard politicised the issue and they ended up being in there for thirteen years,” he adds.

A work of this nature entails a wealth of research, and it was on one of these fact finding missions that Biggins discovered something interesting. “I read a book of his speeches delivered after he was removed as Prime Minister and even I was surprised at the breadth of his interest and knowledge,” he says. “Speeches on everything from Georgian silver to urban renewal in Berlin. And this is from a bloke who left school at fourteen!”

As for getting into the skin of the man, Biggins says he enjoys playing him very much, although, he admits, the stoop gives him a sore neck sometimes. Biggins believes they share many similar opinions about the world and the way it’s run. “I also like the fact that he doesn’t really give a damn about what anyone thinks of him. Nor does he pander to whatever is socially fashionable; he rises above the static of the twittersphere. Personally I think social media is the greatest threat to democracy and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did too.”

Overall, Biggins’ conviction about Keating is pretty clear. His hope is that audiences walk away from the show with the idea that Keating was a leader of moral conviction who was always thinking about the big picture. Further, that he was blessed to be treasurer to a great Prime Minister with the best cabinet the country has ever seen and then he used his relatively short time as PM to introduce profound and long-lasting change. “He was a leader who knew what leadership actually entailed,” says Biggins.

The show has received rave reviews from critics and standing ovations from audiences in Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane, it’s finally our turn to experience what Biggins describes as “the first three-dimensional, unauthorised autobiography written by someone else… I can’t think of a more entertaining or significant figure in recent Australian history with whom to spend an evening. All iceberg, no tip.”

Biggins adds: “The best thing about Keating was that he was funny. This is a funny show, it’s very entertaining. Thought-provoking, yes, but also a great night out. Politics used to be fun, remember?”

May 11 – 23

Bookings: artscentremelbourne.com.au, 1300 182 183

Images: Brett Boardman

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