Review: RBG: Of Many, One, directed by Priscilla Jackman, Sydney Theatre Company
Writing a play about the life and legacy of American Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was always going to be an ambitious task for playwright Suzie Miller.
Ginsburg (or “RBG” to her many fans) was only the second female judge to be appointed onto the bench of the court in its more than 200-year history, when elevated to the court in 1993, aged 60.
Throughout her life, she was much admired for her trailblazing legal career, her work advocating for gender equality and her considered dissenting judgements against the often-conservative majority decision.
At the same time, both during her life and after her death, RBG was attacked for openly criticising former US president Donald Trump during the presidential race and for not resigning from the court during Obama’s presidency, despite her advanced age and cancer diagnosis.
When RBG ultimately died during the Trump presidency, she was not able to be replaced by another Democratic appointee, leading to the court becoming even more conservative.
Miller’s new play is beautifully crafted, written from the perspective of RBG. She discusses her most famous cases throughout her life and her conversations with three of the presidents who served during her 27-year term on the bench. Over this journey, the play takes the audience through a roller-coaster of emotions.
The light and the dark
RBG: Of Many, One, follows RBG’s time as one of the few women at Harvard Law School, along with her work challenging gender-based discrimination including the ability of women to serve on juries and the cancer that repeatedly afflicted her family.
Miller seamlessly weaves quotes from RBG’s most famous cases and judgements into the script, so we hear her authentic voice. The play demonstrates a complex understanding of the legal cases, but Miller doesn’t assume familiarity with RBG: this play is equally accessible for the non-lawyer who knows little of RBG’s history.
Miller doesn’t skate over the criticisms of RBG. She humanises the decisions she made and her later reflections on those decisions. In particular, the audience gets to see, upon reflection, how deeply troubled RBG was by her decision to criticise Donald Trump during the Trump/Clinton presidential election.
RBG: Of Many, One’s ultimate success or failure turns on the strength of the acting. Heather Mitchell is a virtuoso, giving the performance of her life.
She shows us Bader Ginsburg from a young girl through to her physical frailty in old age, poignantly characterising the emotional depth of her character.
The inner strength, the anxieties, the love, and the fears are all expertly conveyed to the audience. At times I have to remind myself that she is indeed playing RBG.
A simple staging
David Fleischer’s set design is stripped back to a beautiful simplicity. For most of the play the main prop is a solitary armchair, sitting isolated on the big stage.
Paul Charlier’s composition and sound design is another strength. He juxtaposes some of the operas that RBG so loved with the music of the rapper the Notorious B.I.G. (from whom the nickname the Notorious RBG is derived). This deftly highlights the complexity of RBG’s character.
These simple design choices allow Mitchell to shine. This play will long be one that Miller and Mitchell will be remembered for.
RBG: Of Many, One is at Wharf 1 Theatre until December 23.