Once Were Leaders: An Evening With Max Gillies

Once Were LeadersMax Gillies finally comes out. After years of hiding behind wigs, make-up and prosthetics to dazzle us with his impersonations of contemporary political leaders, we finally see the man behind the mask.

In his new show Once Were Leaders, Gillies eschews the theatrical accoutrements of his trade, to pay tribute to his script writers by revisiting some of his own personal favourite scripts to illustrate their brilliance. Writers like Don Watson, who wrote his Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser scripts, Guy Rundle, who wrote the Graham (Richo) Richardson scripts, Patrick Cook and Heathcote Williams, are all represented.

The presentation is simple. His stage is set with just a lectern, with a projector screen behind, on which film of Gillies in some of his most famous impersonations is projected at various intervals. Entering stage-right, he commenced the show by dedicating this performance to the memory of Gough Whitlam, who died during the week, and which tactfully was the only mention of Gough during the show.

Gough’s colleagues were not so fortunate as Gillies shared his own views on contemporary politicians and leaders “who talk to us in short slogans… repeated ad infinitum… who don’t deserve satire”. He also shared insights into how he approached the creation of his various subjects illustrating each by performing a favourite script for each character.

Bill McMahon (Tiberius with a telephone), Bob Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Andrew Peacock, Bob Hawke (of course ), Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Queen Elizabeth, Kevin Rudd and Graham (Richo) Richardson and finally John Howard all make the cut.

The scripts of course are wonderful, and still stand up for their erudite and funny content, and the large audience chortled and guffawed their appreciation through-out. But the scripts are just words. It is what Gillies does with those words, and his uncanny knack of capturing the idiosyncratic gestures and unique vocal inflections of each, that is the real magic.

Once were Leaders provides the opportunity to observe a great character actor at work. Decades of refining and practising his art allows Gillies to instantly disappear into the core of his subject, who then inhabits the room before your very eyes. That his subjects prove so entertaining has much to do with the brilliance of the script-writers, but it is Gillies artistry and superb acting skills which brings them to life.

Once Were Leaders: An Evening With Max Gillies         
Canberra Theatre, London Circuit, Canberra
Season: 23 – 24 October 2014
Information: www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au

Once Were Leaders: An Evening With Max Gillies will play the Frankston Arts Centre on Saturday 1 November 2014. It will also play Sydney Opera House: 9 – 14 February 2015 and Arts Centre Melbourne in March 2015.

Image: Max Gillies

Review: Bill Stephens