Theatre

Suzie Miller’s new play about Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Sydney Theatre Company delves into the passion and humour of this complex woman. By Bri Lee.

RBG: Of Many, One

Heather Mitchell plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the play RBG: Of Many, One.
Heather Mitchell plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the play RBG: Of Many, One.
Credit: Prudence Upton

The life and work of the late American Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been well documented in the past decade. There was the 2018 dramatised biopic On the Basis of Sex and a documentary, RBG, the same year. An opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, covered her unlikely friendship with extremely conservative fellow justice, the late Antonin Scalia. At the opposite end of the tone spectrum, Kate McKinnon’s regular satirical appearances on Saturday Night Live – when she slung “ginsburns” at her opponents – were hugely popular. The books about her run the gamut from meme-inspired to legal history to memoir.

Before I saw RBG: Of Many, One, I wondered what Suzie Miller could add to this smorgasbord of content. Miller is one of Australia’s most successful contemporary playwrights and her award-winning play, Prima Facie, was also a one-woman show. A breakthrough hit after its 2019 premiere at Griffin Theatre, it opened on London’s West End this year starring Jodie Comer and will go to Broadway in 2023.

Miller worked in law until 2010 so the subject matter of RBG: Of Many, One is familiar territory for her. It shows, and the depth of analysis and emotion in this writing brings new insights into the human being behind the legend.

From the opening scene, Heather Mitchell as Ginsburg is disarmingly funny. She’s pleading to a large plastic telephone on a side table, “Come on, President Clinton, just call!” It is 1993, we’re in Washington, DC, and our heroine is awash with anxiety, waiting to find out whether she’ll be appointed to the Supreme Court. The president’s team – all men, she notes, in grey suits – have been combing through her meticulous records to vet her. They give the credit for the thoroughness of the preparation to Ginsburg’s husband, Marty, because he is a taxation lawyer and because he is a man.

This waiting-by-the-phone scene is interspersed with flashbacks to Ginsburg’s childhood, reflections on her time in college and anecdotes of her early courtship with Marty. She cries to her mother, asking why only the boys get bar mitzvahs when she can speak better Hebrew. She swoons at the memory of Marty being the “only boy” who cared that she had a brain in her head. When her mother dies, their Jewish faith requires the presence of 10 mourners, all of whom must be men. Young Ginsburg demands to know why 10 strangers should perform this rite, when she is there, already crying.

When she runs into one of the nine brilliant women – out of about 500 students – with whom she went to Harvard Law School, the woman asks how Ruth could be so successful with a baby on her hip, while she could not. “I married Marty,” Ginsburg says – a simple and true response that lands like a punch in the gut. “One by one”, she says, she watched her brilliant colleagues “fall aside” because the men in their lives expected them to sacrifice their intellects for domesticity.

The present-tense waiting game, and every flashback scene, features blatant sexism. Yet, remarkably, Miller’s text never comes across as heavy-handed. Often when I’m watching a television show or film that attempts to sprinkle in a bit of “feminist commentary”, I find that it’s delivered in a sort of forced stage-whisper. Am I right, ladies? You know the tone I mean – the melodramatic wink to the camera. There’s none of that here. It’s partly because the stakes are so high. But it’s also Mitchell’s comic timing, where something as small as a shrug or benign smile keeps us all grounded. This Ginsburg is not a vessel for a lecture. This Ginsburg is a real human woman who cares and who we, in turn, care for.

We’re also laughing at every single line of Mitchell’s impression of Bill Clinton, the first of three presidential impressions we get through the three parts of the show. The final impression of former president Donald Trump is so good the audience erupts in spontaneous applause, forcing Mitchell to pause in her delivery. It’s not so much a quality of uncanny accuracy but that we are watching Mitchell perform Ginsburg performing the president. Mitchell narrates Ginsburg’s life story directly to us, but with a gentle awareness of the play’s metatheatricality – when a stagehand passes Mitchell a briefcase, she says “thank you”, the momentum of her monologue undiminished.

Mitchell and director Priscilla Jackman worked together in 2018 for Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story. The smoothness of the work here certainly suggests a well-oiled machine. Miller says she wrote this role for Mitchell and describes Jackman as “a new comrade in theatre for me”. The play is a triumphant result of this co-operative trifecta. In my mind they’re in a pyramid: Miller and Jackman lift Mitchell up to run point. She soars.

In one of the early flashbacks, when Ginsburg is watching the opera as a child, I noticed Mitchell’s feet dangle in the air as she sits on the armchair. An hour or so later, when we’re in the final years of her life, she is remarkably physically diminished. I wonder if it’s a clever trick of the designer – swapping in a bigger chair so that Mitchell looks smaller – but I don’t think it is. Her hunched back grows more and more pronounced without ever veering into caricature. Her gait becomes almost a hobble. Her fingers and hands retract with arthritis. None of this diminishes her wit.

Behind Mitchell is a wavy wall, curtain-like yet rigid, that at once evokes the stage and courthouse columns. David Fleischer’s set and costume designs augment the story without trying to be too cinematic or impressive. They get out of Mitchell’s way. Props are minimal – only in the third part is there more than a table and chair. In the final phase of her life, Ginsburg’s sensible slacks and suits are replaced with a hoodie that reads SUPER DIVA!! She does comic hip rotations in front of an exercise ball while telling us about a 2014 case that pitted religious freedoms against women’s rights. A change of glasses frames, for example, is enough to communicate the passage of time. Case names and dates are displayed on a small screen high up above the stage – an unnecessary addition to the summaries we hear described in chronological order, but not distracting.

There has been a recent slew of biopics that offer the audience little to no insight into their famous subjects’ interiority – I’m thinking of Elvis and Blonde, among others. We already know what these extraordinary people did: when we go to the cinema or theatre we hope for a glimpse – or at least an interpretation – of the how and the why. I remember attending a preview screening for On the Basis of Sex and the most notable audience response was a sort of longing sigh when the hunky Armie Hammer, playing Marty, was in an apron cooking for the family. In that film we appreciate that Ginsburg is hardworking and cares about gender equality, but we already knew both those things. In contrast, in part two of RBG: Of Many, One, when Marty writes to Ginsburg about being close to death, I was not alone in wiping tears from my face. Even writing this days later, I feel emotional just revisiting my notes.

The perennial pain point of Ginsburg’s legacy is that she did not retire in the term of a Democrat president. The complexities and tensions are explored in parts two and three without caving to hero-worship or oversimplification. There is no risk of spoiling the ending here: Ginsburg died weeks before the 2020 election of Joe Biden. The direct result is the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, who overturned Roe v Wade and, thanks to their comparative youth, will keep the court extremely conservative for decades to come.

I’m deeply impressed that this work isn’t some kind of patronising feminisation of a formidable high-achiever. Rather, it felt as if I finally saw what stoked the fire in the belly of the human being under the jabot. Ginsburg tells us she does not regret her decision not to retire, and we believe her. She did some of her best work in those final years of committed dissent. The women who made this show are doing their best work right now. Don’t miss it.

RBG: Of Many, One is playing at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney, until December 23.

ARTS DIARY

CULTURE Feast: Adelaide Queer Arts and Cultural Festival

Venues throughout Adelaide, until November 27

VISUAL ART Still Watching / Anna Louise Richardson & Abdul-Rahman Abdullah

Fremantle Arts Centre, until January 22

EXHIBITION Belonging: Stories from Far North Queensland

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until February 12

VISUAL ART Patricia Giles: The Enduring Wild,

The Long Gallery, Hobart, until November 22

BALLET Instruments of Dance

Sydney Opera House, until November 26

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Laying down the law".

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