Rarely does a production come along that deserves the tag of ‘landmark’. In The Dismissal, now on at the Seymour Centre in Sydney, a new standard of Australian devised and created theatre has arrived. Put simply, it’s non-stop enjoyment!
Politics may not be everyone’s cup of tea. And the events of 11 November 1975 still evoke strong emotions amongst Australians nearly fifty years later. So, when seeing The Dismissal, put aside your political opinions, just revel in the performances, the songs and the hysterics. For the benefit of the politically disinterested and the young’uns out there, here is a summary of the story.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appoints a Labor-friendly judge John Kerr as Governor-General. Meanwhile, a government Minister Rex Connor arranges a shady four-billion-dollar foreign loan from a colourful Middle East broker Tirath Khemlani. The Liberal Party dumps ineffective Leader of the Opposition Bill Snedden and votes in a strongman Malcolm Fraser. With a majority in the Senate, the Opposition can stop supply bills from passing and hence trigger a general election. The Prime Minister will not call an election. With government finances about to run out, a stalemate develops. The GG sacks the PM and installs Fraser as Caretaker PM. An election is called. The crisis is over as Australians vote for a new government with a massive majority. The rest, as they say, is history.
The amazing thing about The Dismissal is how the writers Jay James Moody and Blake Erickson have been able to construct a musical comedy out of such a dry, serious event. Hence The Dismissal’s tagline “An Extremely Serious Musical Comedy”. Their masterstroke is the use of faux TV presenter and Gold Logie winner Norman Gunston (Matthew Whittet) as Narrator and general court-jester. His performance had the audience in stitches. Outstanding.
Of course, many of the characterisations were just exaggerated versions of the real-life players in the 1975 dismissal. Gough Whitlam (Justin Smith) is portrayed as a naïve grand-master of social reform: a visionary, surrounded by a bunch of inept nincompoops like Rex Connor (Georgie Bolton) and Jim Cairns (Joe Kosky). Whitlam may have been the right man at the wrong time. His adversary and antagonist Malcolm Fraser (Andrew Cutcliffe) comes across as a cunning schemer, a classic Machiavellian. As for John Kerr (Octavia Barron Martin), the impression is of a weak, easily manipulated opportunist; seeking grandeur whilst immersed in the trappings of high ceremonial office. Clearly enjoying his role as Sir Garfield Barwick is Peter Carroll. Barwick stands as a manipulative puppet-master with long, Lucifer-like fingers and intimidating presence.
Characters are one thing that make The Dismissal great. But the music and production elevate it to a new level. There are twenty original musical pieces over the two Acts. Not one is dull or tedious. All composed and written by Laura Murphy, they act as vital conduits which tie the storyline together. And with clever choreography, the songs are visually enhanced. Two showstoppers were ‘Private School Boys’ (Andrew Cutcliffe) and ‘Headline’ (Shannen Alyce Quan). All actors’ voices were strong and pleasant to the ear.
The general production was simple but had creative lighting, sound and stage effects. An airport-style display board above the stage kept us informed of time and place. ’49 saw Menzies elected; ’72 showed Gough enshrined; ’74 had him re-elected. When ’66 came up, a man in wetsuit, diving fins and spear gun strode across stage. Harold Holt! Nothing further said. With a theatrical time of 150 minutes, so much talent and material are on display. With excellent direction by Jay James Moody, the show enthralled the audience effortlessly.
Fortunately, the writers didn’t try to make a judgement on the rights or wrongs of the divisive 1975 events. Rather, I felt an attempt at unification using humour as the tool. It was as if they were saying, “It’s all history, the country survived, let’s just shake hands and enjoy the absurdity of the event together.” There was a brief montage of images of leaders from the post Whitlam/Fraser era which seemed slightly gratuitous. Nevertheless, it served as good after-show discussion fodder.
The Dismissal is the funniest political story in Australian history.