Melbourne Fringe: Gough

Just as selling his budget supply bills to the opposition with a majority in the Senate proved an impossible hard sell for Gough Whitlam in 1975, so too was Gough, the play, written and directed by James Cunningham and performed by Warrick Merry for the Melbourne Fringe 2014.

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Some people idolise celebrities and musicians. I idolise Gough.

The events that precipitated his dismissal – the only Prime Minister to ever be dismissed from office in this country – on the 11 November 1975, Remembrance Day, are still as shocking today as they must have been in 1975 for those of us who weren’t around to witness it or too young to even remember it.

That the then Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, was able to bring about the dismissal of a democratically elected parliamentarian following the events that led to the constitutional crisis is as next to perfect a checkmate manoeuvre and as good as anything ever written by Machiavelli or Shakespeare.

But an event so pivotal deserves greater gravitas than can be dispensed in a 30 minute-long play.

It opens with the famous ‘It’s Time’ campaign advertisement and the small room fills with nostalgia and different intensities of muffled guffaw depending on your age and memory of the events that unfolded.

If you aren’t familiar with the campaign, imagine a “We Are The World”/ “Do They Know It’s Christmas” type scenario, designed to rouse the passions and support of ordinary Australian voters after 23 years of Liberal party domination the same way both campaigns tuned our attention to the plights of African nations in the mid-1980s.

A great start. My heart suddenly swells. My leftist pride piqued. We go along for the 30-minute ride, knowing full well how it ends. We remain hopeful, stoic even, just as Whitlam himself must have remained stoic on that defining day, when the opposition sought to block parliamentary approval for the government’s proposed expenditures.

Warrick Merry has big shoes to fill. As Gough Whitlam, he reminded me of a young Joe Hockey, not one of this country’s greatest ever conviction politicians. Yes, I did just say that. Known for his measured, considered speech, some of his great lines fell short of their mark as though figuring them into the story was more important than delivering them.

The dismissal was a real watershed moment in Australian politics. This wasn’t that.

It was a lost opportunity; the same way Gough Whitlam’s dismissal was a lost opportunity.

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