At What Cost? Review
ATYP’s reviewing program was created to give young people a platform to voice their opinions and experiences while developing skills in critical reflection. The views expressed are those of the writer and do not reflect the views of ATYP or its staff.
Palawa man Boyd (Luke Carroll) lives with his pregnant wife Nala (Sandy Greenwood) on Tasmanian Native Title land. A young, white graduate student, Gracie (Alex Malone), arrives to research William Lanne, a deceased 19th-century First Nations man and the last full-blooded Aboriginal person in the state. In real life, Lanne’s skull was stolen and lost in the private collection of William Crowther, a surgeon and future state premier.
In the play, the skull is finally repatriated to Oyster Cove. Boyd, as a community leader, takes it upon himself to administer traditional funerary rites. Piece by piece, he constructs an impressive wooden funeral pyre that will finally put Lanne’s soul to rest. The almost bare stage at the Odeon Theatre is at once a living room, the funeral site, and that version of the bush that is both a place and a state of mind where empty stubbies are lined up like furniture and people matter-of-factly remark “What a cunt of a day.” The set, lighting, and sound design, as expected of State Theatre SA, are gorgeous and evocative.
Here is where the play gets interesting: we discover that the urbanite Gracie has white skin and Aboriginal blood. She is what some disparagingly call a ‘tick-a-boxer’; Aboriginal on paper, but has never experienced what that means and never lived with Mob. Now, she wants to reconnect with her First Nations heritage and that is precisely the reason behind her visit.
Boyd’s boisterous cousin Daniel (Ari Maza Long), who also fancies her, is open-minded and trusting about her intentions. Nala is somewhere in between, and Boyd – well, he’s not happy. Carroll has such a towering presence that when he rhetorically asks, “Do I look like I’m mad?”, you can’t help laughing. He is brilliantly convincing in the role, even when working against difficult dialogue and a somewhat contrived storyline. More on that in a moment.
Since the Howard years, the tensions bubbling within Aboriginal peoples about these questions of First Nations identity have been tainted and obscured by poisonous politicking from the outside, mainly by the commentariat class. Finally, here is the voice of an Aboriginal person, playwright Nathan Maynard, speaking on this issue and exploding the quiet stigma that surrounds it. He chronicles the argument but does not take sides. Boyd feels that the ‘tick-a-boxers’ are claiming the benefits while happy to be detached from the racial struggle. Then there is Dan’s more conciliatory view, that Aboriginal Culture is something to be celebrated, and it is not Boyd’s place to play a racial ‘gatekeeper.’
Being invited into this world, I wanted to get up close and personal with these voices, to get that little bit closer to understanding the lived experience of this country’s First Nations peoples. These volatile discussions are represented in At What Cost? but not interrogated with the intimacy and frankness of the best theatre.
Maynard’s dialogue too often uses the didactic language of a newspaper op-ed. The play reminded me of the 70s and 80s political theatre, its message delivered with fire and brimstone, but treating character and narrative like an afterthought. For me, it was most intriguing in those moments when the characters suggest something more than the points of view they are supposed to represent – it desperately needed more of them. I was interested in the couple’s domestic life and would have liked to have seen more of Boyd and Dan’s brother-bear relationship. In the end, they embodied so much, yet so little of themselves as human beings.
At a lean ninety minutes, with no intermission, the action is, if possible, too economical and gallops frenziedly to the symbolically loaded finale. As an allegory, it is just about plausible because Boyd’s troubled life, which is also the story of Aboriginal peoples struggle, is suddenly let loose like a floodgate if only to justify the spectacularly Greek flavour of the tragedy. The origin of his fury should have been leaned into from the very start.
Maynard’s play has the sort of guts one craves to see in contemporary theatre. It also has the problem that befalls many stories with an important idea at their heart: the idea operates like an anchor rather than a ballast. I can commend it as a fearless social statement, a supreme exercise in courage, but – it pains me to write – not as a convincing play.
George, 24 [he/him]
At What Cost? played at State Theatre Company South Australia from 16 June – 1 July.