Review: Julia @ Southbank Theatre (Melbourne)

Bronny Lane is an award-winning arts professional, indie filmmaker, entertainment publicist and writer. She was awarded an Arts Victoria Leadership Award and a Churchill Fellowship and is a graduate of Melbourne University. Bronny has also written for theatre and recently made her theatre directorial debut with 'Popera: Sex, Death and Politics’.

I'll never forget the day Julia Gillard was removed as Prime Minister of Australia.

My daughter was four and my mother and I were on the phone constantly reporting back and forth as the votes came in from the ballot. We cried, when the vote was over.

Having a female Prime Minister for the previous two and a half years was an exciting moment in Australian history, particularly for women everywhere who dreamed of equality in the boardroom at the highest level.

It was palpable, it felt like change. It felt like maybe there was a chance that Australian culture could progress in a different direction and permanently. Women felt relieved, as though the future had finally arrived.

We marched in the streets and here is true equality, but all of that was thrown on its head by how our Prime Minister was treated throughout her tenure. Basic respect was thrown out the window such as calling the Prime Minister by her first name, asking about her partner's sexuality, commenting on her appearance and all the time questioning her capability because of her gender.

The play 'Julia', written by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes, and starring Justine Clarke, focuses on the famous misogyny speech Gillard made in response to Tony Abbot and the Peter Slipper affair.

It weaves a story from a young Gillard through to that moment in which she lays down the gauntlet and lets out every moment of offence stating: "I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man."


As we rose to our feet at curtain close, I felt surrounded by like-minded supporters of Gillard. Others who also felt she would bring about change. Others who had been bitterly disappointed when she was ousted. Others who remembered the speech, but hadn't been there in person to hear it, and now had witnessed it through the mastery of Clarke's performance.

Running for an hour and a half with no interval, the play moves swiftly along between moments in Gillard's life. From humble beginnings in Wales where we learn the Aberfan tragedy was close to home for the family. Murray-Smith uses this event as a touchstone to bring us back continually to Gillard in a humanising way.

What particularly stands out is her relationship with her father. Born in Barry, Wales, she emigrated with her family when she was four, with well-entrenched roots from the motherland. Her father instilled in her and her sister values around fairness, equity and the importance of education. It was a sliding doors moment with friends' parent commenting on her brilliant debating skills that set her on the path of law and politics.

Clark delivers a powerful performance as Gillard. She moves in and out of the distinct Gillard dialect, that is almost too Australian, to the point where it sounds put on. Clark is supported by Jessica Bentley, who moves around the stage as though a shadow of perhaps all the women she represents at the highest level. There's education to be had here as well around Gillard's experience in politics and the changes she worked towards.

Special mention goes to Alexander Berlage whose use of light was beautiful in moving the audience through the different moments of the play. The staging is simple with interesting use of video by Susie Henderson, which includes a beautiful use of a choir sequence at the end.

Julia Gillard was the 27th Prime Minister of Australia, she had 570 bills put through parliament in her 2.5 years in the role, the most of any sitting Prime Minister. She left behind a legacy of someone who really tried to make a difference. This play also does that. For anyone who truly believes they support women and women's causes, this play is a must-see.


'Julia' plays at Southbank Theatre (Melbourne) until 13 July, 2024.

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