Heather Mitchell as Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Image: Heather Mitchell as Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

“I needed to tap into who she was as a woman herself”: Heather Mitchell on playing the iconic RBG

The first time Heather Mitchell played Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she wanted to represent her well. The second time around, she wants to play her well.

ICYMI: There's a brilliant play taking the Opera House by storm at the moment, so much so that lead actress Heather Mitchell has received a standing ovation pretty much every single night (just casually) for her role as Ruth Bader Ginsberg in RBG: Of Many, One.

For the record, this is the second time I’ve seen the play. I saw it the first time it hit Sydney Theatre Company in its premiere season, and then attended its triumphant return to the Sydney Opera House. I’m a huge fan of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and may or may not have an RBG figurine on my desk. This time around, I brought a friend who has zero knowledge of RBG or her legacy. The best bit? She walked away as RBG’s (and Heather Mitchell’s) number one fan.

As only the second woman to be appointed to the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was both a trailblazer in the American justice system and a fierce advocate for gender equality and reproductive rights across the US and globally. Olivier Award-winning Australian playwright Suzie Miller has now brought the incredible tour de force's story to the stage with a powerful one-woman monologue performed by Mitchell. (We actually have a podcast episode of Booksmart with Suzie Miller dropping soon so keep an eye out).

When I chatted to Heather (who is as iconic and fabulous as you can imagine), I told her that Suzie had mentioned that she wrote the role with Heather in mind, born of a deep and long-lasting friendship. The two women had met at a lunch nearly two decades ago.

“I was trying to get my kids into a local school, and she got them in,” Heather laughs. “Our kids brought us together, and our relationship developed not so much through theatre, but through our children.” Heather notes that she had seen all of Suzie’s plays, and admired the social justice focus (“including stories about young people and the law”). She was “blown away” by Prima Facie (one of Miller's earlier plays nominated for five Oliver Awards.

During one of their catchups, Heather had been talking with Miller about how upset she was about RBG’s passing, and “the impact she had on the world – and on women in particular.” She says she had been fascinated by elements of her personal life, noting that “there were so many similarities that emotionally I could identify with,” with the two women sharing a Jewish background, and both experiencing cancer. Inspired by this conversation, Miller wrote the first draft of the show and the rest was history.

So how on earth do you prepare to play such an iconic person? Well, Heather “read all the books on her life", plus "I looked at every YouTube clip. I watched all the documentaries and the film On the Basis of Sex. I didn’t necessarily read all the judgments – in terms of preparation, I wanted to get more into her emotional life, as much as her judicial life. I needed to tap into who she was as a woman herself, and then open that circle out to what she was like publicly, in the courts, and to the people. So it really started as an inner circle and then spread out, finishing with the effect she had as an icon, and that was the biggest circle around her.”

In the theatre world, playing the same role twice is a rare opportunity that Heather cherishes. “I feel like the most fortunate person. You have four weeks of rehearsal, and then you do the previews. Your brain isn’t ready for it. Then you do the run of the play and you’re finding new things through it. To get another go at it is absolutely fascinating. Every night you discover new things. Like discovering more of her humour. She’s regarded as a very serious and clear thinker, and her humour has always been attributed to her husband. But in reality, she was really funny. The first time we performed, I wanted to represent her well, and this time, I wanted to play her well.”

When you're playing Ruth Bader Ginsberg, it becomes almost impossible to ignore the churning political landscape of the US in the lead-up to a high-stakes presidential election and the re-emergence of former President Donald Trump. We’ve also recently seen abortion rights start to unravel in the US – so watching the play in 2024 hit me harder as an audience member this time around. Has any of that made Heather's job harder?

A pause. “No, it hasn’t. The first time, Trump was President. What feels more clear to me when I’m saying the lines than anything else in the play is there are great divisions. The divisions between people are becoming greater and greater. I feel that’s the big thing that she would say we've lost and need to get better at, listening and developing and understanding, even to those who we have a great division and belief with. That's what I'm trying to make sure the audience hear. She spoke out against Trump and she regretted it. I think she betrayed herself in a way.”

The play is just as relevant as it was in the first premiere season. Every night in the audience, you can feel others reacting and relating to it. So then, what does she want the audience, particularly young women, to take away from RBG and the show?

“We all have different identities. We talk about women and we talk about men. Identification is broad, diverse, and wonderful. Whether you call yourself a woman, trans, they, whatever your identity, own it and feel proud of it and fight for injustices that are happening and your sense of self. When you see injustice, listen to each other,” Heather says.

“I don't think we listen very well at the moment, we're quick to feel outraged and quick to fight rather than being more measured. Feel what you're feeling, but temper it with research and ask questions before you start posting. Influence happens quickly. Be cautious.” But not about seeing the play. You want to run, not walk to this one.


IMB Theatre, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre

3 Apr – 6 Apr


The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

11 April – 21 April 2024


Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

25 April – 12 May 2024


Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

16 May – 26 May 2024


Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

30 May – 2 June 2024


Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre

13 June – 23 June 2024