The Dismissal at the Seymour Centre
1975: In an unprecedented move, the unelected Governor General and representative of the Queen, Sir John Kerr, sacked the democratically elected Labor government and installed leader of the opposition Liberal party Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister, thus turning Down Under upside down.
Award-winning music theatre powerhouse Squabbalogic returns from the wilderness, bringing the dark intrigue, larrikin humour and larger than life characters of The Dismissal to the stage in this vibrant, exuberant and rage-filled new Australian musical.
Rosie spoke to performer Matthew Whittet about the World Premiere of this epic Australian work and why Gough Whitlam is such a significant part of our history. Read the full interview below:
The Dismissal is a brand new work from powerhouse theatre company Squabbalogic about what they’ve described as the most iconic event in Australian political history: the firing of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Why do you think this event is so significant and how do you think a 2019 audience will respond to this content?
It’s such a fascinating moment in Australian politics, one that’s shaped so much of the political landscape we’re in now. I think it’s hard to imagine the amount of change the Whitlam government brought into Australian society in such a short period of time. Some people were passionately for it, and some against, but no one can deny the size of the difference they made - with indigenous affairs, women’s rights, the health system, welfare, the arts. I think compared to today the politics weren’t so mean spirited either. Tough, yes, but they emboldened a sense of hope that today is much harder to find. I think what Laura Murphy has done with the songs and lyrics is find a way to make it feel very now. They’re such brilliant songs and, along with Blake Erickson and Jay James-Moody’s book, they have so much fun shining a light on what happened back in 1975 for a modern audience.
The Dismissal is advertised as a ‘Pre-World Premiere’ - what can audiences expect from this? Are there plans to take this show further with an official World Premiere?
This is the very first outing of this new Australian musical, so it’s very exciting for us as a cast. We don’t know how people will react yet, but we’re having a ball making it. At the moment it’s like a toddler getting up on its feet and taking its first steps. Hopefully it’ll be running like a champion before we know it… who knows where to.
You’re playing Norman Gunston, a satirical television character who hosted an Australian variety show in the late 70s. What’s it like playing such a well-loved character from Australian history? How does Norman fit into the history of Gough Whitlam?
It’s both an exciting and daunting task to play a character as loved and well known as Norman Gunston. I remember watching re-runs of his shows when I was a kid, and who didn’t love Norman! I think I used to do impersonations of him when I was about 6, so I guess it’s all come full circle for me. It’s so great having the freedom of a character like Norman because he’s such a free radical (and so ridiculously cheeky). I’m going for the spirit of Norman as much as possible, trying to get inside Garry McDonald’s creation as much as possible, but knowing I can never reach the dizzying heights of the real Norman. I just hope I do him justice.
Norman fits beautifully into the history of Gough and the dismissal because he was famously there on the steps of Parliament House the moment Gough uttered his famous words after he was dismissed. To think that a much loved, fictional and quintessential Australian character was right in the middle of this real historical moment is amazing.
The historical events you’re portraying on stage are brought to the audience via song and dance. Why do you think a musical is the best format for this work? How does it change the way we digest the story?
I think portraying this story in song and dance is just so darn entertaining! It sheds a completely new light on how we think about these events and the people who were at the centre of it. It creates a real rollercoaster ride of a story that’s filled with intrigue and is done with such a generous sense of humour.
It’s refreshing to see more original Australian work take to the stage in 2019! Why do you think it’s so important to be fostering Australian works, and what part of this show are you most excited for Australian audiences to see?
We have such brilliant artists in this country, people who really have something fascinating to say and such a distinct way of saying it. To get the chance to foster these voices is so important because they don’t emerge from a vacuum. They need nurturing and the support to grow to their full potential. And I think audiences here are really hungry for Australian stories. They want to see themselves reflected on stage. It’s that sense of community that really makes theatre special, and it’s something we always have to work hard at in order for it to really thrive.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Mourning Becomes Electra at STC, directed by Barry Kosky.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
I’ve always wanted to go to Lapland, Finland.
Dream show to perform in?
Anything funny with an awesome bunch of artists.
Plays or musicals?
This is my first musical in 21 years of acting, so I’d have to say plays. But that could change.
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Reading novels. I could read forever.
What’s next for you after this show?
I’m doing Girl Asleep in Adelaide in a month or so.
The Dismissal opens at the Seymour Centre on June 18th, 2019. You can get your tickets here.