Charles Moore – venerable one-time editor of The Spectator – took three tomes and tons of verbal acuity to get under the skin of UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in his biography of her, so it was with avid interest one went to see how Steamworks Arts and Feisty Dame Productions would cover Australia’s first and only female equivalent, Julia Gillard, in a one-hour solo dance/theatre presentation.

Natalie Allen in Julia. Photo © JLG Photographics

Granted the period to be covered was much less (three-and-a-bit years) and one would have to say the comments about Gillard were hardly acute – venomous might be more accurate – but both women were singular in their ability to stand resolutely alone under the scrutiny of a coliseum full of out-for-blood opponents. And this dance production was its embodiment.

Created by performer Natalie Allen and director Sally Richardson, Julia started out in 2018 as a 12-minute expose of “female leadership, personality, power and the body politic.” It reflected on Gillard’s 14-minute speech in parliament in 2012, known as the “Misogyny” speech aimed particularly at the then leader of the opposition Tony Abbott. It went, as they say, viral, and received praise then from the French Prime Minister (François Hollande) the Danish Prime Minister (Helle Thorning-Schmidt) and also Barack Obama.

Natalie Allen in Julia. Photo © JLG Photographics

Apart from these few plaudits, It is still the aspect of aloneness that first hits you in Julia. The stage is square, holding a bare, rectangular table; the spectators ranged around four sides. Natalie Allen appears dragging a hoist full of clothes. Just as the table symbolizes the lonely seat of power and not a place to sometimes lay a weary head, the clothes (Nicole Marrington) will be used to define her character rather than merely adorn her.

Richardson’s astute direction allows passages of quiet amongst the inevitable raging against the ingrained gender-specific attitudes Gillard received. At one stage Allen walks quietly around two sides of the stage balancing a huge pile of papers on her head. When they fall and scatter like pages of history’s footprints, she ends up stuffing them down her clothes and between her legs giving herself the genitals many deem necessary for her position of power. It should be funny – but Allen’s frustrated distress makes the impact hurt.

Allen is a tour-de-force, torturously angling her body, striding in heels, locking eyes with members of the audience, jumping on and off the table, thrusting her backside (so often vilified) towards the audience, pulling clothes on and off, wearing her suit like a straight-jacket. Allen’s physical agility, was enhanced by the anguish and the luminous power she threw about her and her bruises were testament to her bravura.

Natalie Allen in Julia. Photo © JLG Photographics

Joe Lui and Annika Moses’ sound design was perceptive, highlighting Gillard’s instantly recognised voice (castigating Abbott for his sexism) and creating a storm of polluted noisy criticism in the background. This could have been more effective at times if less obtuse. Lui’s lighting design at one stage covered the floor with hues of red, reminding you that this was central to Australia. Tones of red, in fact were the colours of the night, personified by Allen’s almost cerise wig and red trouser suit. And red it made you feel should be the faces of all of us to have allowed that to happen to a Prime Minister of Australia. As Gillard said in her final words, and as does this production, “We are entitled to a better standard than this,” which Richardson points out is a rallying call, echoing now in 2021 as it did in 2012.

On this night the standard was more than better – it was riveting – no more evident than in the reluctance of the audience to leave at the final defiant brandish of Allen’s outstretched fist. Julia is one of those productions so topical to the feminist battles of the moment that if you miss it you might, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Henry V (one of the best battlers ever) “think yourself accurs’d you were not there.”

Julia is at Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, Perth until 29 May

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