'This job is gonna kill me': Why one of Australia's most popular playwrights keeps writing (2024)

Ten years ago, Joanna Murray-Smith found herself grappling with a difficult feeling.

"I had to reckon with the realisation that I'll never be as good a writer as I want to be. And I'll never be as good a writer as the writers that I love," the Melbourne-based playwright says.

"But that's OK. I've come to accept that."

Her work — including her breakthrough play Honour, which explored infidelity; her adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage; and The Female of the Species, inspired by a real incident in Germaine Greer's life — have been hits on Australian stages, the West End and Broadway.

Yet that work has not been without controversy: She's been criticised for having a myopic focus on the lives of the middle-class and a conservative worldview; and caused a stir when, in the mid-00s, she called out the then-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company for never programming her plays.

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Even after a decades-long career as one of Australia's most produced and most popular playwrights, she still struggles with moments of self-doubt.

"It's a very powerful sensation to be in the audience when you've got a play that's very successful, and that feeds your ego and gives you confidence that there's a point to it all," she says.

"But there are plenty of times where the feelings of exposure and being too sensitive for the job are overwhelming."

But that hasn't stopped Murray-Smith from writing.

In fact, the playwright has three shows on Australia's main stages this year: a national tour of Julia, her dive into the interior life of Australia's first woman prime minister; her new adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya; and a new production of Switzerland, her 2014 play about thriller writer Patricia Highsmith.

And those are just the shows on main stages. This year, there are countless amateur productions of Murray-Smith's plays in production in Australia and around the world.

Walking away and coming right back

Despite the obvious demand for her work, Murray-Smith has always had moments of doubt: "There have been plenty of times through my life where I've thought, 'This job is gonna kill me.'"

But she always comes back. The closest she came to quitting was in 1998, when her play Honour — about a middle-aged man leaving his wife for a much younger woman — opened on Broadway.

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She had started writing the play in 1995, while studying at Columbia University (Meryl Streep and Sam Waterston starred in the first workshop of the play in New York).

Speaking to ABC RN's The Stage Show in 2021, Murray-Smith reflected on that moment, with a laugh: "Being young, there was a part of me which thought, 'Well, this is where I'm at. This is the way it's always going to be. Never again will I have a play reading that doesn't have Meryl Streep in it.' I had to learn the hard way [that wasn't the case]."

Three years later, Honour's Broadway premiere was far from an immediate success, although it ultimately earned Tony nominations for two cast members.

"I was young enough to have sort of believed everyone who said to me, 'This is going to be a huge hit, this is going to change your life,'" Murray-Smith says.

"First of all, it wasn't a huge hit. But secondly, I don't think that professional glory really changes your life. It might make life simpler, because you've got more money. But I think if you're an artist your entire life, you're wracked with doubt about yourself."

Now, Murray-Smith sees Honour as one of her most successful plays. It's been performed in more than 36 countries, won her the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for drama in 1996, and won British actor Eileen Atkins an Olivier Award in 2004 for its National Theatre production.

True success

Something that has always helped Murray-Smith with self-doubt is closer to home: her children.

The playwright unexpectedly fell pregnant the year before she and her husband, journalist Raymond Gill, were due to move to New York, where she wrote Honour.

As Murray-Smith told The Stage Show: "[My husband said], 'I'll take the year off, we'll borrow the money, and we'll just make it happen somehow.' We flew off to New York with a three-month-old baby and great expectations."

Despite the difficulty of that, she insists that having children saved her life.

"The ease with which your professional life defines your sense of self is so dangerous — you only need to have some nitwit in a newspaper drag you down to touch a nerve, which is about your own self-doubt," she explains.

"When you've got children, you don't have any choice but to keep going: not so much professionally, but as a human being. You keep making lunches and getting kids to school and after a while your ego starts to resurrect."

This was only affirmed further when her mother Nita died in 2013.

Coping with grief and related writers' block, she realised through therapy that much of her drive for professional success stemmed from wanting to please her mother.

"Once she died, I allowed the other things that are important to me to take up more space, like my kids. It's not the writing that makes me happy. It's the children that make me happy," she says.

Writing Julia Gillard and the 'misogyny speech'

But Murray-Smith isn't planning on giving up writing. Her latest play is Julia, starring Justine Clarke, which had a sell-out premiere season in 2023 at Sydney Theatre Company (STC), and this year tours to Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra.

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But when STC artistic director Kip Williams first asked her to write a play about Julia Gillard, Murray-Smith said no.

It was only after reading everything she could find about our former prime minister that the playwright became fascinated — not by what she learned about Gillard, but by the gaps in the story: Who was the person behind the politician, the person who had been able to withstand gender-based vitriol from the media and the opposition?

"I've had nervous breakdowns over much, much less criticism than she got," Murray-Smith says with a laugh.

"[Reading about Gillard] I was shocked by the vitriol all over again and realised that, at the time, I don't think I felt waves of empathy towards her as a woman."

She landed on the idea for Julia as an imagining of the former PM's interior life: It would be the playwright's version of Gillard, not a hagiography or biography. But she wouldn't write the show without Gillard's permission — which she gave, even (eventually) agreeing to an interview.

"It's not a play that I anticipated being a big success," Murray-Smith admits.

"The thrill of Julia has been realising that Australians not only love Australian stories, but they're so excited when something in their own lifetime is mythologised on stage."

That "something" is Gillard's infamous "misogyny speech" from 2012, where she called out then-opposition leader Tony Abbott in Parliament. It's one of the pivotal moments of the play.

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Murray-Smith explains that the speech is one of those moments where people — especially women — remember where they were when it happened.

"In many cases, women were in working environments where they did not feel they had the power to be able to speak up and be able to object to misogyny or sexism in the workplace. And so, Julia was really speaking for them," she says.

"What that misogyny speech did in terms of ushering in a new era for women and a new sense of expectation for the behaviour of men has really touched a nerve in the audiences."

The cost of writing plays

A number of women politicians saw Julia and told Murray-Smith it resonated with their experiences — including the cost of public life.

But that is something not only politicians experience.

As for the cost of public life on Murray-Smith? "All artists are exposing themselves in ways that are difficult to live with.

"Every time I have a play on, I feel as if I'm standing naked in public. Even if the subject seems to be very removed from you, as Julia seemed to be very removed from me, it's completely autobiographical. You are unpeeling layers of your unconscious self in every line."

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It wasn't until she was watching a preview of Julia in Melbourne earlier this month that she saw that she had modelled the relationship between Gillard and her father on her own relationship with her father, Stephen, the founder of progressive literary journal Overland.

Murray-Smith credits him with her understanding of ethics, her ideas around workaholism, and her sensitivity to issues of justice and fairness, especially in terms of class.

"I've attributed [those values] to Julia's father, and I genuinely think that's probably something we share. But I might be wrong. But whatever: The conviction in the play comes from my own experience," she says.

"Where your writing is hitting on your deeply buried internal truth, emotional truth, that's where it gets lift-off. You have to forget that you're revealing yourself, or it would be too terrifying and you wouldn't do it."

At 62 years old, Murray-Smith shows no signs of slowing down. Last month she was announced as the 2024 Patrick White Fellow at STC — a position worth $25,000, which also includes a commission for the company's 2025 season and mentorship of emerging writers.

Murray-Smith says she's motivated by her love of writing: "On the days when I'm not writing, I always have a sort of slight sense of having cheated myself out of the real fun."

"You have to be pretty egocentric if you're an artist. You have to believe that you've got something to say that's worth saying."

Julia runs until July 13 at Melbourne Theatre Company; from July 31–August 11 at Canberra Theatre Centre; from August 16–31 at State Theatre Company South Australia, Adelaide; and from September 5–October 12 at Sydney Theatre Company.

Uncle Vanya runs from July 26–August 31 at Ensemble Theatre, Sydney.

'This job is gonna kill me': Why one of Australia's most popular playwrights keeps writing (2024)

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