What do you get when you cross Keating! with Hamilton? A Gough Whitlam musical

What do you get when you cross Keating! with Hamilton? A Gough Whitlam musical


By Lenny Ann Low

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In a tiny, windowless room on the seventh floor of a Sydney CBD building, wig designer Nick Eynaud is gently patting Dame Joan Sutherland’s head. “It’s not one that moves much,” he says, pressing the stiff bouffant’s honey hued swirls. “Same with Queen Elizabeth II.”

He points at the late monarch’s tight neat curls hugging a foam mannequin head on a high shelf.

Eynaud, standing amid suitcases, bags and more mannequin heads, is preparing 65 differently styled wigs for the new Australian musical and political satire The Dismissal: An Extremely Serious Musical Comedy.

Matthew Whittet as Norman Gunston and Justin Smith as former prime minister Gough Whitlam. They star in the musical The Dismissal about Whitlam’s sacking. Credit: James Brickwood

The show, which is based on what is considered Australia’s greatest constitutional and political crisis, is an all-singing, all-dancing production created by theatre company Squabbalogic. It features characters ranging from former prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser to then governor-general Sir John Kerr and TV comedy star Norman Gunston.

When I visit, it is two weeks before opening night, and the production, which fills two floors of rehearsal space, is a hive of activity. In another room, set and costume designer Emma White works with costume-makers. In another, director Jay James-Moody and writer and composer Laura Murphy watch actors rehearse.

Having conceived the idea of The Dismissal 11 years and six prime ministers ago, James-Moody created the musical with co-writer Blake Erickson and Murphy, who wrote the music and lyrics.

“We wanted to create something a bit more serious than Keating! and a bit funnier than Hamilton,” James-Moody says. “It’s a political satire and a satire of musicals themselves.”

Three actors are playing a gaggle of journalists, each shouting questions at actor Shannen Alyce Quan, who is playing political staffer Junie Morosi. “Junie, what’s the real reason you came to work for the Whitlam government darlin?” one reporter says.

Andrew Cutcliffe (left) as Malcolm Fraser, Octavia Barron-Martin as Sir John Kerr, Justin Smith as Gough Whitlam and Matthew Whittet as Norman Gunston.

“Do you really feel you’ve been treated unfairly by the media sweetheart?” says another.

Morosi, a picture of calm, is dealing with scuttlebutt about her connection with former treasurer Dr Jim Cairns, played by Joe Kosky. She begins talking about parliament being “a hostile work environment for women” but is drowned out by the reporters.

For anyone unfamiliar with the events of the dismissal, its climax came on November 11, 1975. On that day Sir John sacked Labor leader Gough Whitlam from office and commissioned opposition leader Malcolm Fraser to form a caretaker government. A month later, the Liberal Country Party won a landslide election.

These events, and the political figures involved in them, shaped many Australians’ attitudes to politics. Unexpectedly, they also provided a platform for one of the most sparkling and quintessential moments in Australian comedy.

For, standing beside Whitlam on the steps of Old Parliament House, was another legendary figure. The wide-smiling, optimistic, little Aussie bleeder from Wollongong, Norman Gunston.

Gunston, or more specifically, his creator, Garry McDonald, had hightailed it from Sydney to Canberra with an ABC TV crew as rumblings of a leadership topple grew. McDonald, his Gunston comb-over and toilet-papered shaving cuts in place, joined the action.

It remains astonishing to watch footage of Gunston on that day. As Whitlam waves to supporters, Gunston is closer than any of the federal police restraining onlookers behind. Minutes later, beaming with excitement, Gunston encounters Bob Hawke, then President of the ACTU and National President of the ALP, mid-conversation beside parliament’s front doors.

“Oh, look, it’s a bit too serious for that,” Hawke says to Gunston.

Gunston agrees vehemently: “It certainly is. It’s extremely serious.”

Matthew Whittet, who plays Gunston in the musical, grew up watching re-runs of The Norman Gunston Show. He was entranced by McDonald’s electric physicality, whip smart wit and almost boundaryless interviewing style.

“It was genuinely unhinged in a great character way,” Whittet says. “He used to riff and bounce from one thing to the next, to the next, to the next until people would be asking, ‘Where is this going? What’s happening?’ He just brought so much joy.”

In The Dismissal, every part of the show is shown through the eyes of Gunston, who is the narrator.

“That’s the brilliant thing about the writing,” Whittet says. “It was the darkest hour in Australian political history and the most iconic comic creation, both at the same time, both things existing. People laughing, people crying. That’s how the show tracks as well.

“It’s why we can have various serious moments in the show. Because then Norman comes through and just pops the balloon. It’s very clever.”

Andrew Cutcliffe, who plays Malcolm Fraser, says the show’s characters – who also include former treasurer Dr Jim Cairns, former minister Rex Connor and Queen Elizabeth II – are three-dimensional in a kooky way.

“It’s a really serious musical and everything is historically accurate in no way at all,” he says. “It’s the most zany madcap off-the-wall comedy. Maybe towards the end there’s a bit of a slap in the face with the drama and the seriousness of the situation, but pretty much the whole way through, it’s just mad-cap comedy.”

Meanwhile, over in the costume room, White is looking at a wall of detailed drawings depicting 70 outfits. “The set is fairly minimal, so the costumes have to do a lot of the character and storytelling and also create place,” she says. “Obviously, we’re re-creating a lot of real-life people that people have a tacit memory of, so we have to do them justice.”

She points at a drawing of a debonair jacket and trousers. “Malcolm Fraser has this classic suave pinstripe suit,” she says. “He is very suave.”

There are more suits for Whitlam, Cairns and Connor, along with drawings of skirt ensembles for Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Whitlam and a long green formal gown for Tamie Fraser.

“It’s still a wound, still such a charged and hotly debated moment in Australia. That’s what I’m really looking forward to with this show.”

Sir John’s top hat and coat tails are easily spotted as is a drawing of Dame Joan Sutherland voluminous green gown from her streamer-festooned farewell at Sydney Opera House. A distinctive wet-suited figure with flippers and snorkel is familiar.

“Yes,” White says. “That’s for Harold Holt.”

Hanging nearby is the original Gunston glittery blue jacket with black lapels, a garment lent by Garry McDonald for the costume department to copy.

Down the corridor come the singing tones of actor Peter Carroll who swishes past in black court robes, semi-dressed as his character, former chief justice of the High Court Sir Garfield Barwick.

Eynaud, holding Sir Garfield’s long grey mildly decrepit magistrate’s wig, beats it slightly with his fingers. “The idea is he’s never taken it off,” he says, a cloud of powders rising from the hairs. “And that he’s been wearing it to bed.”

The Dismissal’s first full season in 2021 at Sydney Theatre Company was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. But Justin Smith, who plays Gough Whitlam, recalls the show’s first airing in a five-night run in 2019.

“It’s been fermenting since then but hasn’t changed hugely,” he says. “There’s been no throwing any babies out with the bath water. I’m very privileged to step into the shoes that are probably slightly smaller than Gough’s.

“He’s held on such a pedestal in a lot of circles, so it’s been fun to find his flaws as well. We’re trying to show both sides of the man and different generations have different understandings of Gough.”

David Smith, official secretary to the governor-general, reads the proclamation dissolving parliament following the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

Another difference is the casting of Octavia Barron-Martin as Sir John Kerr. Early in the show’s creation, James-Moody, Murphy and Erickson realised the work was dominated by older white male characters. Existing plans to feature cross-gender casting merged with a desire to include a blend of vocal ranges.

“We realised we had a triangle with Gough, John and Malcolm, with John almost a spouse taken for granted who allows someone else to come in and seduce,” James-Moody says. “So it enhanced the subtext of those relationships, from a heteronormative point of view at least.”

Barron-Marton, the most recent of the “core-four” cast, says she is thrilled to be involved. “And part of why I am thrilled is that my parents actually met in Old Parliament House when my dad was working for Whitlam and my mum was working for Lionel Murphy,” she says.

Smith jumps up in his chair in excitement.

“What!” he says, wide-eyed. “You didn’t tell us that.”

Replies Barron-Martin: “No, I’ve been sitting on it.”

She takes out her phone to show a black-and-white photo of her father, Peter Martin, a media adviser, standing near Whitlam on the night of the 1972 ALP election victory.

“If [my casting] was ever to happen I didn’t think I would be playing John Kerr,” she says, laughing. “Kind of the villain of the piece. Not necessarily in this, but as part of our national psyche.

“So, yeah. This means a lot to me. I’ve cried several times with joy in the corner of the rehearsal room, looking very strange, being numb and very self-conscious. Much like I am right now.”

Labor connections continue in Barron-Martin’s family. Her cousin is Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne and her mother, mentored by barrister, judge and politician Murphy, was part of the first mature-age women cohort to study law at the University of New South Wales.

“He’s one of those people that is really important to her,” Barron-Martin says of Murphy. “And it’s the same thing with dad and Gough.”

Whittet, who has spoken extensively with McDonald to develop his depiction of Gunston, says the show uses comedy to ask how we relate to politics nearly five decades after the dismissal.

“There’s the question of, where are we now?” he says. And, “How did we let this happen? What’s changed since then?”

Essentially, they all say, the show is a fusebox of satirical fun with a raft of toe-tapping Murphy musical bangers. With politics.

“It was effectively a coup and we’ve never dealt with it as a nation,” Barron-Martin says. “We all just went ‘Oh, well’ and moved on. It’s still a wound, still such a charged and hotly debated moment in Australia. That’s what I’m really looking forward to with this show.”

The Dismissal is at the Seymour Centre from August 26.

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