What does it take to stand firm in a rushing tide? One that suddenly comes not just from the expected direction, but from all of them, buffeting a woman from side to side?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the great legal mind, feminist, and later, improbably, the pop culture darling, would know better than most. And RBG: Of Many, One, written by Suzie Miller (of Prima Facie fame) and directed by Priscilla Jackman (White Pearl) tries to trace that journey, and let the audience feel the rush of all those tides.
So how did Heather Mitchell, the actress known for her screen appearance in Binge’s Love Me, and previously, for playing prominent transgender writer and former Australian Defence Force officer Catherine McGregor in the 2018 STC play Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story, find it within herself to embody an icon of American society? Especially one whose impact was outsized in her later years – which grew beyond her tiny frame into a face printed on mugs and tote bags, indie children’s books and fridge magnets alike?
Mitchell’s great power is in making her astute character study of Ginsburg feel effortless. Across a sparse stage setting, most often bare, sometimes hung with velvet drapes or centred with a chair, she inhabits Ginsburg through a series of periods in her life: from her impetuous girlhood, to her starry-eyed adolescence, to her college years, her nomination to the Supreme Court, and the pinnacles and nadirs of her 27-year stint on the highest bench in the United States.
Mitchell told The Guardian that in the leadup to the play, she found herself walking and talking as Ginsburg after rehearsals, even brushing her teeth like her. But on stage, she makes the transformation seem easy. Her accent is almost faultless, and she inhabits the late justice in her gesticulations, her hunched frame in later years, her gravelly voice. You only realise the enormity of the task Mitchell had ahead of her once the lights are on and you’re shuffling out of the theatre. A feat, in itself.
Miller’s script is not the first time Ginsburg’s life has been storied: a 2018 documentary about her, RBG, was nominated for two Oscars and the film On The Basis of Sex tilled much of the same soil as this play. But RBG: Of Many, One is a sweeping but satisfying portrayal of its subject’s life, delving into its main subjects with grace and patience, in (a relatively short) 90-odd minutes. And it’s an unexpectedly funny watch. Impressions are ripe fruit, of course, for humour – and Mitchell certainly delivers in this territory, particularly in her take on Bill Clinton’s Arkansas drawl, and Trump’s idiosyncratic (read: easily mockable) hand gestures. But comedy also springs from unexpected places. In a sequence that bursts full of light and colour, we watch Ginsburg exercising with tiny dumbbells and pull her diminutive frame into crunches, as pop music belts around her and she reflects on her new found fame as “The Notorious RBG”. It’s wry and deft, and a gentle reprieve from the grief that permeates the last third of the play.
Lights do much of the work on stage. It’s just them and Mitchell, for the most part. Flashes snap on her in different poses as she preens for the cover of Time magazine, and the overheads dim to mournful gold as she faces death, again. The rousing score of La Gioconda comes in to transport the viewer in the moment Ginsburg discovered her love of opera as a teenager – her surrender to it, the powerful spiritual experience she feels, is palpable. But that is, naturally, easier done with a sweeping operatic score than perhaps if RBG developed a taste for house punk.
The scene of her death in 2020, just weeks from the election, is tortured. As she repeats often – once when she was asked to retire in 2013, as Obama looked to future-proof the Supreme Court against a conservative overwhelm : “There’s so much more work to be done.” As the music dies and the lights dim, you’re left with a sense of the woman she was: dynamic, principled to the hilt, feverishly motivated until the end. Jackman, Mitchell and Miller’s work certainly does her justice.
RBG: Of Many, One plays at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 Theatre from October 29 to December 17, 2022.