The text message arrived after midnight.
Tim Pallas, Victoria’s Treasurer, was hours away from delivering the State Budget, but wanted an update on the health of playwright, speechwriter, theatre director, radio broadcaster, poet and author Michael Gurr. “A great speechwriter and a true Labor hero among so many other literary achievements,” Pallas wrote. “But his greatest achievement was being there for us in the dark times of Opposition when few wanted to know us. I will miss him profoundly.”
Two hours later, at 2.20 a.m. on May 2, Gurr died at St Vincent’s Public Hospital, Fitzroy. He was 55.
Pallas’ praise for Gurr was not hagiolatry. Between 1996 and 1999 – a time when Premier Jeff Kennett was considered unbeatable and the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party untouchable – Gurr was part of a small band of politicians, staffers and true believers who built an electoral siege machine capable of felling Kennett’s dominant Coalition Government.
At first, Gurr wrote speeches for Labor leader John Brumby. When Brumby was replaced months before the 1999 state election, Gurr switched to the new leader, Steve Bracks. The leader and speechwriter clicked, and Labor won. “Michael was one of the reasons why we won in 1999,” Bracks said at the public memorial for Gurr.
Gurr went on to play defining roles in Victorian Labor’s successful 2002 and 2006 campaigns, but declined offers to work for Bracks in government. Instead, he returned to his first love – theatre.
Precociously talented, Gurr was spotted by playwright Ray Lawler, author of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, while studying at the National Theatre Drama School. In 1982, at the age of 20 he became the youngest ever writer-in-residence at the Melbourne Theatre Company. “When Michael came to Melbourne Theatre Company he was already beyond any need of me as a literary mentor or advisor,” Lawler said.
Despite his early association with the MTC, Gurr’s plays were synonymous with the Malthouse Theatre, then known as Playbox, where he produced seven plays in just twelve years. At the Malthouse, Gurr often worked with director Bruce Myles to produce a string of critically acclaimed plays such as Crazy Brave, Sex Diary of an Infidel, Jerusalem, The Simple Truth and Underwear, Perfume and Crash Helmet.
Gurr’s plays toured nationally, were produced in the United States, South Africa and Britain and won numerous awards – including eight Green Room Awards and four State Literary Awards for Drama in Victoria and New South Wales.
In 2003, he wrote Something to Declare, a spoken narration of the collected stories of asylum seekers that has since been performed more than 100 times around Australia. In 2007, his political and artistic memoir, Days Like These, was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award. His last play, Mercy, premiered in 2010, while a radio adaptation of the Patrick White novel Memoirs of Many in One aired on ABC radio in 2012.
A long-time resident of Footscray, Gurr spent his final years living in Castlemaine, in regional Victoria. He became critically ill in April and was flown to Melbourne, where scores of Gurr acolytes gathered to say farewell. In his final days, 13 people slept on the floor and in the corridor outside his hospital room.
The public memorial for Gurr was held at the Malthouse Theatre, the scene of many of his artistic triumphs, on May 15 – the 20th anniversary of the opening night of the Sydney production of Jerusalem. The theatre was packed with more than 350 people. Speeches were said, songs were sung, poems were read, and scenes from Gurr plays were brought back to life on the stage. Finally, the author was given a long, lingering standing ovation.
Michael Gurr is survived by his siblings Mary-Anne, Susan, Belinda and Christopher, and his partner Brandon Jones.