Notorious RBG
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Heather Mitchell as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo: Rene Vaile
Heather Mitchell as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo: Rene Vaile
Pride and privilege

Notorious RBG

Everyone knows the name Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Often described as a dynamo, trailblazer and pioneer, the former US Supreme Court judge often leaned on her Jewish heritage when making decisions. Her story is now being told in a one-woman show by Sydney Theatre Company. The AJN spoke to Heather Mitchell, who is bringing Bader Ginsburg’s story to the stage.

Main image by Heather Mitchell as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo: Rene Vaile

“She was diminutive in stature but towering in her ideas and courage: within that tiny frame was a powerhouse, a visionary …”

These are the words of Heather Mitchell about the extraordinary Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Mitchell, who will be bringing Bader Ginsburg’s story to the Sydney Theatre Company stage in RBG: Of Many, One, said she feels an immense pride and privilege at portraying the renowned Supreme Court judge.

“I feel grateful to get this opportunity. It feels important to tell her story,” Mitchell told The AJN ahead of the production’s start at the Wharf Theatre.

Bader Ginsburg was, of course, famous for her historic Supreme Court nomination, fierce advocacy for reproductive rights and serving during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The one-woman show, written by Suzie Miller, sheds light on the woman behind the public figure, from her teenage years growing up in New York to her death in 2020.

“Suzie Miller is a very dear friend of mine,” Mitchell explained. “I said to Suzie that she was someone that I’d love to play, and she said, ‘Well I’ll write it.’ So, she went and wrote. And I could not put it down.”

Mitchell – who said she grew up never seeing TV, films or theatre – knew she wanted to act, but had no idea that it was a real job. It was only once she left school and met people at NIDA that she realised acting was something she just absolutely wanted to do.

While she has acted in television and film, Mitchell describes the theatre as her home.

“It’s a place where I feel deeply at home, and the people who are involved in the theatre … I cherish my relationships,” she said.

Explaining that acting on screen and in theatre have “similar preparations and very different preparations”, Mitchell said that theatre is a very immersive medium.

“Theatre is much more about getting something completely into your body and mind so it’s second nature,” she said.

Which is exactly what Mitchell did with Bader Ginsburg, saying the more she dived into the research, the more she wanted to tell the icon’s story.

“She was the most fiercely obstinate, optimistic person – that’s what I can’t get over,” Mitchell laughed. “She never missed a court setting. She was so much stronger than her body, even though she lived to such a wonderful age. I think she survived so many things because of the incredible strength of character that she had.”

Mitchell is, of course, talking about health issues – both those of Bader Ginsburg and her husband Marty. When the pair were in college, Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Bader Ginsburg attended classes for both of them so Marty wouldn’t fall behind. Bader Ginsburg herself was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999. It was the first of five bouts of cancer. She eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2020, aged 87 – 21 years after her first diagnosis. She passed away on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Rabbis suggest that only very righteous people pass away at the end of the year, because they were needed right until the very end.

Righteous she was. And also very inspired by her Jewish heritage.

“A lot of it, as she has said, is from her Jewish heritage,” Mitchell confirmed. “By being Jewish, she was driven to be a protector of people, to talk for the oppressed or people who are in minorities, and talking against antisemitism, which was rife when she was growing up. Watching the injustice and the antisemitism really propelled her and dove her.”

Mitchell also attributes a lot of Bader Ginsburg’s determination to her mother.

“Her mother’s influence was enormous. She would say ‘be your own lady’, and she didn’t mean be polite or proper. She meant, be your own woman. Don’t rely on anyone for your own sense of self and your own sense of worth, and don’t be dependent on anyone, either financially or emotionally. Be independent,” she said.

Mitchell said she really connected with Bader Ginsburg on many levels. While she didn’t grow up in a practising Jewish household, her mother did. And her mother definitely carried the Jewish ideals of justice and peace. Mitchell’s husband is also named Marty, and she credits him with being a brilliant father to their children, and he embraces her completely as she is – both things that Martin Ginsburg was very well known for.

It’s why, perhaps, Mitchell has been able to comfortably delve so far into Bader Ginsburg’s story.

For director of RBG: Of Many, One, Priscilla Jackman, the play is about leadership.

“It’s a chance for us, to really reflect on what we take for granted in terms of equality in the law, and how important it is for us to remain vigilant and mindful of all of the progress that people like RBG made.”

In an added bonus, the set has been designed by Moriah College graduate David Fleischer, who Mitchell said has done a “brilliant job”.

While she acknowledges that a one-woman show is a huge task, she said she has been energised by Bader Ginsburg’s unwavering passion.

“I hope people will leave this show feeling inspired about her, and also about life in general. Ruth offered a sense that anything is possible; she’s an example of what passion, commitment and hard work can achieve.”

RBG: Of Many, One is currently at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatre until December 17. For tickets, visit sydneytheatre.com.au

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