Julia Gillard: one-woman play starring Play School’s Justine Clarke to debut in 2023

A new one-woman play focusing on the life of Australia’s first and only female prime minister, Julia Gillard, will debut on stage next year.

The play Julia, written by Joanna Murray-Smith, one of the country’s most prominent playwrights, has been billed as a highlight of the Sydney Theatre Company’s (STC) 2023 season, and will feature actor and Play School presenter Justine Clarke in the eponymous role.

The announcement on Thursday came as Gillard completed a Melbourne and Sydney tour to packed auditoriums in the lead up to the 10th anniversary of her “not now, not ever” misogyny speech, delivered in parliament against opposition leader Tony Abbott on 9 October 2012.

Related: ‘I will not’: how Julia Gillard’s words of white-hot anger reverberated around the world

A new book edited by Gillard, Not Now, Not Ever, was released this week in Australia through Penguin.

STC’s artistic director, Kip Williams, who commissioned the play, said the misogyny speech struck him as “this pivotal moment in Australian political history and one ripe for interrogation theatrically”.

The play, which will take in the life and career that led up to that speech, will be directed by Sarah Goodes.

Murray-Smith’s past plays include Honour, Switzerland and the Olivier-nominated the Female of the Species, based on the life of Germaine Greer. “I knew she would be the perfect writer to give us a theatrical insight into this extraordinary moment in our first female prime minister’s life,” Williams said.

Murray-Smith said her new play would be neither political nor partisan, and she confessed she initially greeted Williams’ idea with little enthusiasm.

“I said to Kip, ‘it’s not really my thing,’” she said. “But I said I’d go and read up and think and see what happens.

“And the more I read, the more intrigued I became by her. The more shocked I was at the reality of what her experience as prime minister had been like.

“I was [not] as aware as I should have been. So I revisited the misogyny speech and realised that I wasn’t really interested in writing a political biography of Julia Gillard. Other people could do that better. And I wasn’t interested in doing a political analysis of the quality of her leadership, because once again, there are many more qualified people who could do that better.

“But I was very interested in the psychology of the woman who had repressed her rage through mountainous vitriol.”

Murray-Smith said she began the work as pure “audacious” fiction with “imaginative flourishes” because despite the extensive material written on Gillard over the past decade, there was very little that provided real insight into her private persona – not even in Gillard’s own book My Story, published in 2019.

Related: Thomas M Wright on making The Stranger: ‘My partner said, “I don’t want you to do this”’

When contacted by the playwright, Gillard initially said she would not endorse the play.

“But I would have absolutely no desire to stop you writing it,” Murray-Smith recalled the former PM saying.

It was some time later that Gillard agreed to give Murray-Smith a video interview via Zoom, which lasted for an hour and a half.

“She was incredibly generous,” the writer said.

“I imagined that after what she’d been through, she would be pretty defensive and have the barricades up to anyone who was trying to analyse her or get soundbites or trigger her into some kind of inappropriate statement.

“But that couldn’t be further from the truth. She was very relaxed, very open, incredibly generous. So yes, my admiration for her grew through that encounter.”

A hagiography, however, is not what 2023 audiences will see. Nor will there be any hint of satire.

It is why Murray-Smith, who has casting approval rights with STC, was delighted with the casting of Clarke.

“I didn’t want someone who looked like Julia Gillard … I didn’t want mimicry, or anyone doing the so called Julia Gillard voice,” Murray-Smith said. “I wanted to go much deeper than that.

“And I think Justine Clarke is the kind of actress who will do that.”

Clarke said she was “excited and terrified” by the role.

“I think Julia Gillard was born to lead and I’m intrigued by this,” she said in a statement. “There is no doubt that her speech and the global attention it brought changed the course of conversation.”

In other 2023 productions for the Sydney Theatre Company, two of Australia’s most beloved actors Claudia Karvan and Sigrid Thornton will star in plays cemented in the theatrical canon: Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? and Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, respectively.

Four new works will be on offer, including stage adaptations of Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On The Beach, and Pip Williams’ New York Times bestseller The Dictionary of Lost Words.

And the box office blockbuster The Picture of Dorian Gray, starring Eryn Jean Norvill, will make yet another return to the Sydney stage, before making its way to London and New York later next year, the STC’s Williams confirmed.

  • Julia will premiere 30 March 2023 at the Sydney Opera House