September 15, 2023

Theatre

‘The Dismissal’: An all-singing, all-dancing reimagining of the constitutional crisis

By Steve Dow
Three actors are seen on stage during a performance of The Dismissal, portraying Malcolm Fraser, Norman Gunston and Gough Whitlam.

Andrew Cutcliffe and Justin Smith, with Matthew Whittet in The Dismissal, 2023. Photo © David Hooley

The Gough Whitlam musical – with Norman Gunston as guide – is a polished and hilarious spectacle, but at times it tries to cover too much ground

Imagine gonzo journalist Norman Gunston as the host of this country’s great constitutional crisis: before, during and beyond. The “little Aussie bleeder” as a time traveller able to be present at cataclysmic national moments feels entirely plausible, considering Gunston wielded a microphone on the steps of Old Parliament House on November 11, 1975, just as prime minister Gough Whitlam emerged to rail against the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, for sacking his government.

In the fabulous new comedy musical The Dismissal, we see Gunston languidly playing speaker in the House of Representatives, as the ruthless opposition leader Malcolm Fraser builds his overthrow of Whitlam’s twice-elected government over attempts to secure $4 billion in dodgy loans to buy back Australia’s mineral wealth from foreign companies. In a more private moment, a homoerotic charge makes the audience squeal as Fraser, whom Whitlam damningly appraised as “Kerr’s cur”, leans in to almost kiss the governor-general, a boilermaker’s son decked out in absurd – yet actual – top hat and tails, and whose vanity for status led him to ambush Whitlam with a dismissal notice counter-signed by Fraser that fittingly took place on Remembrance Day that year.

There’s Gunston at Buckingham Palace, working as some sort of private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II, busy knitting her woollens like Madame Defarge – an ominous sign that a coup is at hand and heads will roll. Her Maj rips off her pink hat and skirt to reveal a black latex dominatrix bodice wrapped in the union jack, and as dancers dressed as “sexi corgies” spin around her she belts out an infectious dance number, “I’m Not Listening”, that would give Lady Gaga a run for her money. We were all Lizbet’s colonial dogs, it seems, or perhaps her little monsters.

Like a Time Lord, Norman leaps back into the long, sleepy, narrow-minded Menzies years, and later forward to stumble onto a roasting planet. In an afterlife coda to this musical, dead Whitlam tells dead Fraser, as they watch a cathode-ray television playing a montage of their prime ministerial successors: “We are eternal, not immortal, comrade.” Yet Gunston somehow feels immortal, taking the piss at our darkest hour, his psyche embedded in the national character.

Premiering at Sydney’s Seymour Centre after Covid restrictions forced its cancellation in 2021, The Dismissal was conceived and is directed by Jay James-Moody, who collaborated on the book with Blake Erickson, and the production positively shimmers with composer Laura Murphy’s 21st-century pop sensibilities. It’s a polished, joyous yet profound spectacle, though at times it tries to cover too much ground.

Matthew Whittet nails the anxieties and twitches of Gunston, actor Garry McDonald’s grotesque but lovable creation who burst into life on The Aunty Jack Show in 1973, before securing his own show with a stellar career as a naif hack attending the press conferences of pop stars and politicians alike, his hair combed over with Dippity-do hair gel and tissues plastered on his face to absorb the effects of ever-present shaving injuries.

Justin Smith firmly grasps Whitlam’s thundering camp and drollery, and the towering intellect of the man who made the arts portfolio his own but was also a man of the suburban people. Murphy thus bestows Whitlam with songs with an Aussie pub-rock sound, leaning into Farnsey and Barnsey as influences as he sings “Maintain Your Rage” with full placard-wielding company, although to my ear when the chorus implores him to “show us what you’re made of”, I think of British rock band Queen singing their tribute to superhero Flash Gordon.

As Malcolm Fraser, Andrew Cutcliffe is suitably patrician, performing the song “Private School Boys” while surrounded by Liberal MPs whipping off their pants – like a tale foretold of Fraser mysteriously losing his trousers in a seedy Memphis hotel a decade later – as they sing, “Oh daddy, I’ll make you so proud of me.” Oh, and Rupert Murdoch makes a cameo, or at least his torso does, as a large, hand-held puppet thundering his credo at the nervous scribes who built Whitlam up in 1972 only to knock him down: “It doesn’t matter if it’s true!”

Therein may lie part of the reason why conservatives on the whole eschew new Australian theatre, cut arts funding and refuse to instigate national arts policies. Like its obvious antecedent, Casey Bennetto’s wonderful Keating!, which premiered at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2005, The Dismissal lionises Labor politicians and lambasts the Liberals.

In Keating!, handsome Mike McLeish played Paul Keating as a dashing crooner (the real Keating even got up and danced when the musical was performed in Sydney, also at the Seymour Centre, in 2008) while Terry Serio gave his John Howard cruel (but hilarious) head tics and mechanical arm waves, marching in camouflage with a pith helmet and bayonet and singing, “On the mate ship, anchors away, we’ll decide if you’re invited to stay”.

Even though Keating! ends with the 1996 election loss, the triumphant last number still recalls the “sweetest victory” of the 1993 poll. In The Dismissal, one of many recurring themes that resonate today is that the Liberals biggest talent is for saying “no” – undeniable as the Voice to Parliament referendum approaches – while a dead Malcolm Fraser slyly nods to the musical’s political leanings when he belatedly shares his suspicion he has just been portrayed as more Machiavellian than he really was.

There are lots of little meta lines in The Dismissal, and bon mots about how a musical works that reward an audience’s intelligence: the chorus mows precious green suburban nature strips, for instance, and sings that “drought is a metaphor”. But there are some elements that could be shorn from the production: too much time is spent with the ill-fated Liberal leader Billy Snedden, whose existence here seems to mostly be about demonstrating Fraser’s ruthlessness in knifing him. But we get Fraser’s gimlet eye soon enough. I wanted more Gunston and more Whitlam.

Singing “Crash Through or Crash”, Brittanie Shipway is finally allowed to find Margaret Whitlam’s renowned sense of self in the second act, but before that point the role is underwritten. In the first act, when Gough tells his wife that he has appointed John Kerr as governor-general, she mainly objects to the (high) tone of his voice. But according to the 2013 ABC documentary Whitlam: The Power and the Passion, Margaret more forthrightly said: “Oh dear, you could have done better than that”, a view confirmed after the dismissal when she reportedly told her husband: “You should have slapped his face and told him to pull himself together.”

Shannen Alyce Quan lends a quiet dignity to Junie Morosi, the principal private secretary who had a scandalous love affair with Labor deputy leader Dr Jim Cairns, here depicted over champagne and oysters in a spicy cocoon for two of enlightenment and consciousness expansion. Quan as Morosi speaks of parliament’s “hostile environment for women” – plus ça change – but the master stroke is the casting of the sleazy governor-general who gossips that Morosi is a “honeypot” and a “pants-wearing lady” with “pressed slacks”. Octavia Barron-Martin’s gender-flip turn as John Kerr is delivered with physical alacrity, and she is hilarious as the easily flattered fool swayed by his new wife and the conservative establishment to bring Labor down. Casting a woman as Kerr underscores the dripping misogyny inherent on both sides of politics and among the ruling class in that period.

Likewise, Georgie Bolton nails the bumbling minerals and energy minister Rex Connor, hunting down a “spare” $4 billion from gold-spectacled commodities trader Tirath Khemlani (Monique Sallé, who also plays the Queen), underlining the mediocrity and appalling political judgement among Whitlam’s unwieldy cabinet of way too many men.

Finally, actor Peter Carroll is superb as chief justice Sir Garfield Barwick, sporting judicial wig and robes, even at Whitlam’s pool party (as well as some long green talons like he just stepped out of the cast of Wicked), and getting into the ear of John Kerr and egging him on to knife Whitlam. Carroll is a gem of the Australian theatre scene; my mood always brightens when I see his name among a cast.

The big question is whether all this hilarity might help to heal the faultline that trashed Australian democracy in 1975. Perhaps the take-home message after we’ve stopped laughing and singing is that, with our fate still tied to the British monarchy almost 50 years later, it could all happen again.

 

The Dismissal is at the Seymour Centre in Sydney until October 21.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.

@dowsteve

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