Heather Mitchell plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg: ‘I was even brushing my teeth as Ruth would’

The Australian actor is portraying ‘the notorious RBG’ in a one-woman play. She talks about stepping into the shoes of a judicial lion

The spirit of the late US supreme court justice and feminist Ruth Bader Ginsburg has entered Heather Mitchell. The actor has developed the bent spine of Ginsburg’s latter years, the clenching of her bite and speech, the tighter hand and finger movements that result from ageing tissues.

Sometimes, after leaving rehearsals at Sydney Theatre Company, Mitchell unconsciously finds herself moving like the diminutive octogenarian who championed gender equality and reproductive rights, and who died of pancreatic cancer in 2020.

“I was brushing my teeth last night and thinking, ‘What’s wrong with the toothbrush?” laughs Mitchell, 64, during a break in the four-week rehearsal period for the new play RBG: Of Many, One. “And then I realised, ‘Oh, I’m doing it as Ruth would’.”

Mitchell holds herself with poise, and a charm that takes you into her confidence. She slowly turns her palms over and circles her hands, bringing to mind RBG arguing a dissenting judgment.

There are biographical parallels between herself and the justice aplenty: “I have had cancer before, and then I had breast cancer again in January, and she had cancer twice,” says Mitchell. “[We share a] Jewish background – my mother [Shirley] was Jewish. My mother died on my last exams at school, and so did hers.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pictured during her confirmation as her husband, Martin, looks on, in 1993.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pictured during her confirmation as her husband, Martin, looks on, in 1993. Photograph: Gary Hershorn/Reuters

Like Bader Ginsburg’s late husband, lawyer Martin D Ginsburg, Mitchell’s husband, cinematographer Martin McGrath, whom she married 30 years ago, is also known as Marty.

Audiences will of course see Mitchell in familiar dark judicial robes, changing her large spectacles as the justice ages through the decades. A replica brooch of the one Celia Bader gifted her daughter will be a constant on her jacket, while different dangly, bauble earrings are worn.

Mitchell will also dress in casual daywear on the Wharf 1 stage, when the play delves into RBG’s personal life behind the lionisation of the woman who came to be feted as “the Notorious RBG” in pop culture.

“There’s the femininity of her and the playfulness she had with fashion,” says Mitchell, “even though she was not a particularly fashionable woman.”

Heather Mitchell in STC’s RBG: Of Many, One.
Heather Mitchell as Ruth Bader Ginsberg in STC’s RBG: Of Many, One. Photograph: Rene Vaile

RBG: Of Many, One is written by Melbourne-born playwright Suzie Miller, a former human rights lawyer, who also wrote Prima Facie, about a female barrister who defends men accused of rape and is assaulted herself, which starred Sheridan Harbridge in its 2019 premiere and Jodie Comer in its London West End debut.

Mitchell notes both plays are about a woman grappling with women’s freedom of choice and speech. Each play demandingly relies on just one actor, and in Mitchell’s case she must also switch to voicing Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump – one president’s voice for each of the three acts.

Mitchell drops her voice now into a folksy Arkansas drawl to demonstrate Clinton (“liiike thaaat”), followed by a staccato, speechy Obama (“there is no-way-that…”), but stops herself short as she’s about to voice Trump, perhaps fearing having her impersonation taken as parody.

“Anyway,” she says, “we’re not trying to send them up but trying to be those voices.”

A fixture of many Sydney Theatre Company productions for 40 years, Mitchell has no fears standing by herself on stage, having played transgender military speechwriter and cricket commentator Catherine McGregor in one-person play Still Point Turning in 2018.

But she admits: “I was more nervous and tentative about [playing McGregor] because of her being trans, [I was] saying a trans person should play the role, and in the end, Catherine wanted me to do it.” She felt comfortable doing the role, though her cautious explanation reflects a sensitivity to the ongoing discussion about opportunities for trans actors.

Heather Mitchell at the Sydney Theatre Company in Walsh Bay
Mitchell, a fixture of Sydney Theatre Company productions for 40 years. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Still Point Turning and RBG: Of Many One are both directed by Priscilla Jackman, who the night before the Guardian’s interview with Mitchell gave birth to her first child. “She said to me doing this play gave her such confidence about being pregnant,” says the actor, noting this theatre is welcoming of a newborn and that Jackman’s husband intends to bring the child into the rehearsal room to support her. “Everyone’s done everything to make sure that she can bring the baby to work and not miss a beat.”


When Bader Ginsburg died, Mitchell “felt scared, a little bereft” because RBG’s dissenting judgments “were so important and so strong. She truly believed her dissents were there for future generations of women, that there will be female presidents who will read those dissents and change the nation”.

Of particular contemporary prescience is Bader Ginsburg’s criticism of the reliance on the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling to underpin abortion rights. She argued that the ruling’s basis in privacy between a woman and her doctor, rather than on equal protection grounds, was susceptible to attack. This year, the precedent was overruled and abortion rights have since been scaled back across the US. “What made me feel scared in the current climate is the danger that her voice will get lost,” says Mitchell.

I raise Trump’s rightwing appointments to the supreme court, ensuring abortion is an issue in the looming midterm congressional elections and well beyond.

“I don’t ever want to make an assumption that anyone believes what I believe, so I never want to say, ‘Trump this’ or ‘Trump that’, because some people are supporters,” Mitchell says. “So all I’m saying is that, from where I sit, there’s a great sadness and a fear that something huge might get lost.” Mitchell says that given the subsequent erosion of abortion rights in various US states, “we’re all thinking maybe it can change here [in Australia], too”.

Gloria Steinem wrote Bader Ginsburg “acted on the intertwining of racism and sexism long before it was called intersectionality”, but there was a social media backlash against RBG when she died, questioning the late justice’s “very white brand of feminism”.

Playwright Suzie Miller tells Guardian Australia that Bader Ginsburg’s beginnings as a legal advocate and human rights lawyer were influenced by Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the highest court and who also often wrote minority dissents, although RBG herself was an “incremental builder of rights dialogue”.

“Obviously in this day and age, that intersection of racism and sexism is something we have a dialogue about, but that dialogue was still evolving back in her period, and you have to place her in the time she was around.”

Heather Mitchell at the Sydney Theatre Company in Walsh Bay, Sydney, NSW, Australia. Mitchell is soon to take part in a one woman play in the roll of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
‘What made me feel scared in the current climate is the danger that her voice will get lost,’ says Heather Mitchell. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Bader Ginsburg is relevant internationally as a “courageous” figure, forging a judicial career at a time when women were largely being denied advancement. While Australia now has its first female-majority high court, Miller recalls back when she was waitressing to help her through law school, she waited on the table of the first woman appointed to the high court, Mary Gaudron, and how inspiring it was when Gaudron told her: “Well, I hope I see your name on the high court.” Icons matter.

Miller says she read widely and deeply about RBG, including all of her cases, which “give you a sense of the magnitude of her intellect and her capacity for thinking clearly”. Miller says Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting judgments will provide wisdom for the decades and centuries ahead.

Bader Ginsburg was “absolutely right” in speaking out against the Roe v Wade judgment and submissions, says Miller, even though it did not make her popular at the time. She “was prescient about a lot of things”, with the exception of being “misguided” about Trump’s chances of winning the 2016 election and her own refusal to resign from the supreme court to allow Obama to replace her with a younger progressive justice.

In writing RBG: Of Many, One, Miller pitched Mitchell as the actor to play her. “I didn’t want anyone else doing it,” she says. “It’s written with her very much in mind.” Miller watched Mitchell do a complete run-through of the play in late October.

“It’s mind blowing,” says Miller. “It’s like Ruth Bader Ginsburg is in the room.”

  • RBG: Of Many, One previews at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 theatre from 29 October, the season running from 4 November to 17 December.


Steve Dow

The GuardianTramp

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