Gillies showcase Mad King Ferdinand and other political leaders

The elastic features and sharp wit of the fabulous Max Gillies will be showcased at this year’s Woodend Winter Arts Festival as he switches between a performance as Spain’s mad King Ferdinand VI and sifting through his archive of scripts to portray some of the most notable leaders of our times.
Max told the Midland Express that he was looking forward to reprising “the leaders who took us on a grand adventure”. Most of them, he realised, were from the 1980s – Thatcher, Reagan and of course, Hawke.
Once Were Leaders is a one-man show, with Max musing about the time when political leaders seemed to spend more time leading – and weathering the storm of the consequences. Some leaders burnt bright only to fade quickly, like Paul Keating. Others, like John Howard, were indefatigable, tenacious and longstanding.
“They were all larger than life characters compared to many we see today. Back then those people really stood for something and sold it by sheer force of argument and personality,” Max said.
“There was a general sense back then that the world, and the economy, needed shaking up. An opening out. Of course, those chickens have now come home to roost as a result of all that globalisation. We are now in retreat from those days. In hindsight we haven’t been happy with where we ended up.”
Max says that the success of his portrayals were all about great writing. The first script that Don Watson (who will be at the festival for the Australia Adrift panel) wrote for Max was Bob Hawke: “It still stands up” he says of the script – and it will be one of the pieces he will perform from his favourite scripts by Watson, Patrick Cook and Guy Rundle.
In Life in Death and Death in Life Max’s comedic talent is applied to the character of mad King Ferdinand VI of Spain, patron of Domenico Scarlatti, dotted with performances by festival artistic director Jacky Ogeil as Queen Maria Barbara, of virtuoso Scarlatti sonatas.
“I commissioned this show with writer Rodney Hall in 2004 with the idea that history is often funnier or more outrageous than anything we could invent,” Jacky said.
“Scarlatti’s mad King patron provides us with some hilarious moments. This method of having a pseudo historical setting to the performance of Scarlatti sonatas also provides a fun social, political and historical setting to the music.”
“It’s a great piece of character,” said Max, who will be in costume for this performance with Ogeil.
“Reflecting on the script, I was struck by the fact that there’s a bit more depth to the character of the mad King than you might think. He’s a bit more complex.”
Max is looking forward to returning to Woodend for the festival which he has featured in before.
“Somehow being in situ like that, you can really see the musicians at work and there is a piquancy to the music you don’t get elsewhere. And then you go outside and… you’re in the bush! I like the music and enjoy the company of the people. There is something pleasantly authentic about the setting.”
* Once Were Leaders, two performances, 11.30am, Saturday and Sunday, June 9 and 10, St Ambrose Hall, Woodend ($40 / $35 concession / $20 child)
* Life in Death and Death in Life, two performances, 7.30pm, Saturday and Sunday, June 9 and 10, St Ambrose Hall, Woodend ($45 / $40 concession)
Full details of the festival program, and ticket purchases are available at

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