Of Many, One review – Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s acting is heartfelt, but slips into banality

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman ever appointed to the United States Supreme Court, has become the distrusted face of a certain brand of American feminism under President Donald Trump. Beatified into a symbol of pop culture, the words and iconography of “the Notorious RBG” cut through the noise of the news and resonated with many in the last years of his life. At the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, her likeness was almost as ubiquitous as the pink hats that became a fleeting but popular accessory for the movement. But time flies: Ginsburg, often a single dissenting voice in this increasingly conservative court, died in 2020.

RBG: Of Many, One – a play for a woman written to honor her life – is a curious next step in Ginsburg’s legacy. The new work is by Suzie Miller, a lawyer-turned-playwright who also wrote Prima Facie, the 2018 play that excoriated Australia’s justice system for its handling of sexual assault cases. This play was a hit, touring Australia before moving to the West End with Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer in the lead role. (It will make its Broadway debut next year.)

Related: Heather Mitchell plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg: ‘I even brushed my teeth like Ruth would’

This game feels like another reach beyond Australian shores to hit the international; as a result, it sometimes feels like we’re warming up before the show reaches its target audience overseas. Ginsburg’s struggle is like ours, but not ours; his work has had no direct impact on our justice system. Yet Australian arts and culture, particularly in the mainstream, tends to look abroad for icons, trends and subjects, and Miller works within this continuum. Here, his piece attempts to show us the humanity behind the liberal lion, as well as what it means to work to create lifelong change.

On a nearly bare stage, we meet Ginsburg, played here by the remarkable Heather Mitchell, an actress with a striking ability to connect with a room with just the twist of her mouth or a twinkle in her eyes. Mitchell plays Ginsburg from age 13 to 87, charting a life marked by loss (of her mother and sister), love (her great romance with husband Marty) and music (Ginsburg’s famous love of the opera moves through Mitchell’s body like a revelation).

Most of the time, however, there is the law, and we talk about the law: its possibilities, its limits and how it can be (but must not be) manipulated for political ends.

Miller’s quick, heartfelt, and sometimes frustrating storyline dips her toes into Ginsburg’s landmark cases, both those she litigated as an attorney and those she judged (the play could spend more time with these cases; you can’t help but want more right in a piece on Ginsburg). It jumps back and forth in time with changes so sudden it’s hard for the audience and the production to keep up. Actions and conversations are dropped mid-reflection in favor of flashbacks, disrupting emotional and dramatic construction.

Related: Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue review: How Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed America

Director Priscilla Jackman is working the script as best she can, keeping Mitchell supported on David Fleischer’s sparse set. Props serve as touchstones of time and place; the lighting (by Alexander Berlage) spends much of its time reaching for her for a supportive embrace, and composer and sound designer Paul Charlier blends Wagner and Puccini with a touch of grandeur (and a bit of hip-hop) to construct Ginsburg’s Inner Worlds.

It’s a game that’s close to your heart. It’s thoughtful, warm and clear. But the script – and the production – has a habit of slipping into banality. Elder Ruth is witty; younger versions are less so. The script turns cliché, which unfortunately means the production often does too: when Ginsburg talks about the Women’s March, the whole scene is bathed in pink and a cat bonnet falls from the sky. In these moments, the play does Ginsburg, and his life’s work, a disservice.

This earnest simplicity is also a habit of Miller’s work, a habit she mostly avoided in Prima Facie, her best piece to date. What animated this room was its incandescence; a methodical and courageous fury against the world and Australian law. However, although ideologically aligned with Miller’s best work, Ginsburg was of an opposite temperament, favoring clarity and precision, and separating politics from emotion. Indeed, Ginsburg’s only fall in public emotion (talk about a possible Trump presidency) was a source of shame for her, not power.

Perhaps Ginsburg was Miller’s favorite subject, but perhaps she was not the right vehicle for this piece and for Miller’s clearer messages. Although Ginsburg’s name and image are more recognizable, it was Mary Gaudron KC – the first woman to sit on the Australian High Court – who Miller says in the play’s program was his inspiration while getting his own law degree.

Perhaps our scenes are best suited to tell the story of our own “great dissident”, Michael Kirby AC CMG; or those who changed the fabric of Australian life and law, like Kuku Yalanji woman Pat O’Shane, the country’s first Aboriginal female lawyer and later magistrate. It’s hard not to miss her story in this rare space, on one of Australia’s most famous stages, in one of Australia’s most famous theater companies. But instead, we have a piece about a beloved American figure that is bravely performed but oddly muted.

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