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RBG: Of Many, One - Sydney Theatre Company (NSW)

Reviewed by Claira Prider

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Until 30th March, 2024


Heather Mitchell gives a virtuosic and transcendent performance in this captivating portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg


RBG: Of Many, One is a ninety-minute, one-woman show about the late, great, feminist legal legend Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Written for Heather Mitchell to perform, Suzie Miller’s text presents RBG’s life from age thirteen to her final moments. Exploring her personal life as well as a number of her best-known cases, the writing balances action and exposition to create an exceptionally moving and engaging piece of theatre.


Heather Mitchell is exquisite and virtuosic in this mammoth role; her physicality and tone transcend decades of life in a perfect balance of tenderness and stoicism. Her portrayal of RBG's personal life is breathtakingly palpable. Through relationships with loved ones, she creates the most visceral moments, particularly with her adult granddaughter Clara who shares so many of her values. She transforms from young student, determined and vulnerable, to an elderly woman, so desperate to see a female elected president in her lifetime. Having recently listened to Mitchell's self-narrated autobiography, I was shocked at how natural her Brooklyn accent felt in this dynamic and demanding role that sees her also voicing presidents Clinton, Obama, Trump, and her husband Marty.


The text invites us directly into RBG’s world. I don't feel like I’m watching her story unfold as an outsider, instead, Mitchell creates such a vivid and readable world that it feels more like I’m there with her. We’re privy to her inner dialogue and so much of Priscilla Jackman’s direction engages us the audience, as the other party present. In both scenes that depict her attending the opera, she sits in a chair facing us, as the audience become the stage that she’s watching. When talking to Obama, she’s sat at the dining table with a crisp linen napkin on her lap, it’s like we’re sitting opposite and sharing the meal with her.


Photos by Prudence Upton


A light blue velvet upholstered chair sits in the centre of the blacked out empty stage. There’s a matching telephone stand with an early 90s landline and small lamp on top. While nervously waiting for the phone call from President Clinton to confirm her appointment as a Supreme Court judge, the text flits between stories and eras. Changes are differentiated by movement to different spotlit areas around the stage as well as the use of the subtitle screens to specify what date/location/legal case we’re watching. David Fleisher’s minimalist design sees a handful of set pieces carried on and off the stage such as two lighting boxes on wheels when RBG sits for her Time magazine cover photo shoot, a gym mat, dumbbells and an exercise ball, and a coat stand where her robes and collars hang. Alexander Berlarge’s lighting design clearly informs and drives the story with use of mainly white and red hues.


Music can translate emotions we’re unable to find words for, and Paul Charlier’s sound design and opera focus expertly scores the work to reinforce this. Opera unapologetically explores the deepest of emotions, no holds barred – and the pairing of arias with some of RBG's most devastating moments carries the work to soaring heights. Handel’s ‘Piangero La Sorte Mia’ plays as she reads the letter Marty wrote her in his final days, the singing is filled with sobs as the soprano weeps for her own loss. During her workout session, a mashup of Notorious B.I.G. and Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria plays, an apt reflection of her adored presence among a younger audience in her final decade.


While I enjoyed the depiction of her rise to pop icon fame, there are moments towards the end around the 2017 women's march, that lean a little too far into 'girl boss feminism' to feel fitting. Addressing some uncomfortable moments such as the deep shame she felt around her 'ill advised' Trump comments or the confrontation of being asked when she's going to retire, I often found myself wanting more, feeling like the scene has been cut short. While I appreciate the humanity-oriented lens, overall, I wanted to hear more about her time in educational institutions and legal settings where she caused so much change.


RBG: Of Many, One is surprisingly funny as well as deeply heart wrenching. While the portrait is a celebration of life, it's impossible to ignore the despair and grief for the loss of rights that people around the world have experienced since her passing. In an interview with Sydney Morning Herald about reprising the role for its 2024 tour, Mitchell says “Ginsburg was speaking for the rights of people, and particularly minority groups, and for absolute equality, for those who don’t have a voice. I think that’s really relevant right now.”


 

RBG: OF MANY, ONE 


Director Priscilla Jackman

Designer David Fleischer

Lighting Designer Alexander Berlage

Composer & Sound Designer Paul Charlier

Assistant Director Sharon Millerchip

Voice & Accent Coach Jennifer White

Associate Designer (Tour) Emma White

Associate Sound Designer (Tour) Zac Saric

Cast Heather Mitchell

Understudy Lucy Bell


TOUR DATES


Sydney Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House 9 Feb – 30 Mar

Wollongong IMB Theatre, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre 3 Apr – 6 Apr

Canberra The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre 11 Apr – 21 Apr

Melbourne Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne 25 Apr – 12 May

Brisbane Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre 16 May – 26 May

Parramatta Riverside Theatre 30 May – 2 Jun

Perth Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA 13 Jun – 23 Jun


 



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