Current Issue #488

A one-man journey through the barbs, one-liners and neoliberal legacy of Paul Keating

Thomas McCammon
Jonathan Biggins in character as Paul Keating

Yesterday, the State Theatre Company confirmed its season of Jonathan Biggins’ The Gospel According to Paul has been cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. But with this story already in the bag, we suspect some readers might appreciate any excuse to look back on a time when prime ministers spoke in fewer slogans – and more sick burns.

Say what you will about Australia’s many prime ministers, but few have inspired the creation of theatre. It’s hard to imagine Tony Abbott On Ice getting funding in this environment, let alone Kevin Rudd’s All Dancing Disco Revue (although a Busby Berkeley-style water ballet celebrating Harold Holt has a certain undeniable appeal).

Paul Keating, however, inspires something in artists and writers that few of Australia’s many, many leaders has done. He’s already been the subject of an award-winning musical (Keating!) and now actor, comedian and satirist Johnathan Biggins is stepping into his (Zegna) suit to present The Gospel According To Paul.

“You look back and think there was an extraordinary amount of policy going on and not that much politics,” he says of the Keating years. “And now the reverse has happened. I mean, obviously there was the leadership and the Kirribilli Agreement [in which Bob Hawke supposedly agreed to hand the leadership over to Keating during his third term], but it’s a pretty extraordinary life that someone who left school at 14 – technically 14 and ten months, I’ve been told – and didn’t go to university who then became such a rounded, educated autodidactic polymath, and was able to dominate the political scene so effectively.”

Keating was a unique PM: on the one hand, he was a fiercely progressive force, especially when it came to multiculturalism, the status of First Australians, and the arts. On the other, he led Australia into the global neoliberalism which is currently starting to look like maybe not having been an entirely awesome idea. 

A taste of the real Keating’s ‘performance’ style

“You could argue that some of his and Hawke’s reforms are now coming back to bite us,” Biggins agrees, “but he would argue that they were necessary and that ensuing governments removed the safety net and failed to protect the legacy of what he did. It certainly looks like the 29 years of uninterrupted economic growth are about to slide to a halt. And we could argue that in the light of climate change that economic growth is no longer a desirable thing, but part of the problem of doing a one man show about someone like Paul Keating is that it’s very hard, when being him, to criticise himself.”

Biggins has been performing his version of Keating for years as one of the mainstays of the annual Wharf Revue, and it turns out that the former PM was not initially a fan of the idea that this version of himself getting a full-length show. 

“We knew that he was averse to this project at the beginning,” he admits. “The original plan was to make the show about Keating planning his state funeral, and then his sister pointed out to me that he has refused a state funeral and finds the whole idea utterly terrible. So I changed that, but I gathered that he was still not keen and was worried that it’d be a hatchet job or an invasion into his personal life,” He pauses. “I mean, Keating! was basically a hagiography, that’s why he saw it seven times.”

The seeds were sown from an emergency monologue Biggins shoved into the Revue a couple of years ago when co-star Drew Forsythe was forced to drop out with a sudden medical emergency. “So I did this thing of him coming out and going ‘I’m here to remind you what leadership looks like’ and the audience went ballistic. And Keating came and saw that and thought ‘Oh, they still love me? Alright, fine, go ahead.’ And he gave us permission to use some photos from his private collection, and he’s see the show twice and sent his family along. Even [former wife] Anita came and saw it…”

A different night, presumably? “Oh, a very different night.”

Keating tells student protestors in Adelaide, including then-NUS SA President Tammy Franks, to “get a job”. She certainly did.

The show took two years to write due to the sheer amount of research and Biggins is proud to declare it factually accurate, though is quick to point out that “the other joy is integrating Keating’s barbs, one-liners and insults and making them my own. And he’s just a theatrical character – he’s funny, he’s sharp, he’s melancholic, so people are also moved by it. People come expecting 90 minutes of stand-up Keating, and it’s not that. As Bob Carr said ‘he’s the most entertaining politician we’ve ever had.’”

And at a time when global and national events seem to be moving more swiftly than the government can handle them, his legacy looms larger than ever. “Keating said that leadership was about two things: imagination and courage. Imagination makes sense of the big picture, to think of something better, and the courage to see it through. And I worried that maybe we’d missed the boat, that Keating was a bit old-fashioned, but wow: it just gets more relevant every day.”

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings, State Theatre Company’s March/April season of The Gospel According To Paul has been cancelled.

24 March – 4 April

The Gospel According To Paul

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AGSA, Museum suspend public programs while Festival Centre, State Theatre join nation-wide event cancellations

Andrew P Street

Andrew P Street

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Andrew P Street is a freelance writer whose books include The Short And Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign Of Captain Abbott (2015) and The Long And Winding Way To The Top (2017).

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