Theatre review: The Gospel According to Paul, Sydney Opera House

Jonathan Biggins returns for another season in office as our former Prime Minister.
A man in a white shirt, black pants and tie is standing in front of an office set. He's got on hand on his hip and another pointing at the viewer.

Paul Keating came closer than any other Australian Prime Minister to practising politics as a kind of theatre (unless, I suppose, you consider eating a raw onion a Dadaist performance piece). It therefore seems only appropriate that he has inspired not just this production but also Keating! The Musical.

Although it is true that Lawrence Mooney did a standup show in character as Malcolm Turnbull and the Sydney Theatre Company staged a play about Julia Gillard, it is hard to imagine the theatre-going public clamouring for multiple shows about any other Australian leader. 

Jonathan Biggins, whose knack for impressions will be familiar to fans of The Wharf Revue, initially seems to be going for a Mooney-esque standup set in character as Keating but the show quickly becomes something stranger than that and is all the more compelling for it. Biggins’ uncanny portrayal – it is sometimes hard to remember it is not actually Keating up there on stage – is self-deprecating but doesn’t just play for laughs. There are moments of genuine pathos.

His affection for the character is obvious – it is easy to imagine that if the real Keating was to speak about his life for 90 minutes it might come out much the same way – with perhaps a little less singing and dancing. 

The show gets deeper into the weeds of Keating’s back story, including policy, than I expected. There is even room to mention Rex Connor’s plans to nationalise the mining sector (although the loans affair Connor’s plan precipitated is tastefully brushed over). In an attempt to balance the desire for detail against the necessity of maintaining audience engagement, Biggins resorts to a variety of theatrical styles, including presenting Keating’s economic reforms in the form of vaudeville. Although it might depend on one’s enthusiasm for politics, in my opinion Biggins succeeds in keeping things entertaining. In any event, this is not a show likely to attract the politically disengaged. 

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If there is a major criticism of The Gospel According to Paul, it is that it gives Keating too easy a ride. There is no concession that he was responsible for any policy failings, or really, any failings at all. Although Biggins’ Keating is repulsed by offshore processing, he is defensive about being responsible for its institution – ‘It was only supposed to be three months, not 13 years’. Which is one way to deflect the criticism, I suppose.

Here again though, the audience is self-selecting – I doubt a straw poll of attendees would have picked up too many Liberal Party or even swinging voters. Nor would it be exactly realistic to have a politician display contrition on stage. And Biggin’s performance is realistic – sometimes frighteningly so. 

The Gospel According to Paul
Presented by Sydney Opera House in association with Soft Thread Enterprises
Director: Aarne Neeme
Soft Tread Enterprises Producer: Jo Dyer
Actor/Creator/Co-Producer: Jonathan Biggins
Sound and Video Designer: David Bergman
Lighting designer: Verity Hampson
Set, Props and Costume Design: Mark Thompson
Technical Director: Marcus Kelson 
Stage manager: Tanya Leach
Performer: Johnathan Biggins

Tickets: $84.90-$94.90

The Gospel According to Paul will be performed until 23 June 2024 at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House

Ned Hirst is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney whose work has appeared in Overland, The Australian Law Journal and elsewhere. He tweets at @ned_hirst.