State Theatre Company South Australia and Belvoir Theatre. Odeon Theatre. 20 Jun 2023
A pair of muddy and weather-beaten boots sit at stage centre, evocative and waiting. There is wood, turning twisted gum branches laced around the stage’s perimeter and there is a darkened and broody backdrop.
At What Cost is a taut and powerfully written script from Nathan Maynard, and the anguish is evident within the first five minutes. A story of the return of the remains of one of the last Tasmanian Aboriginals and the battles gone through by a population sent into extinction, this is a modern-day cautionary tale, or a history lesson in horror, or a zombie apocalypse come back to life.
Mind you, it takes its time getting there. The main thrust of the play is not apparent until we are fully immersed, and that pair of boots forgotten. What happened to those boots, so evocative as the stage slipped into black at the start of the evening? Nothing. Sometime in the first five minutes Boyd (played by Luke Carroll) casually pulls them on. That is all.
The action unfolds, sometimes at what seems a determinedly slow pace - movement and blocking across the stage become repetitive and a bland accompaniment to the pace of the script, as predictable as the casual reaching for the saltshaker on the dinner table. The table, hard stage right, serves as one of the focal points, for the stage is divided into spaces (at The Odeon this is floor spaces, the audience overlooking from the raked seating). These spaces are not rooms, but they are delineated. The four actors enter and move along predetermined lines, the blocking is poor in places, but it is the strength of the script which carries it.
Boyd is a proud Aboriginal man, proud of his attempts to reclaim lands for the Palawa people of Tasmania. His wife Nala (Sandy Greenwood) is also a First Nations woman, and her performance is a nuanced and solidly supportive one. She is the quiet star of the evening, whereas Ari Maza Long as Cousin Daniel is somewhat given to histrionics, except he is strangely compliant when taken to bed by the interloper Grace, played by Alex Malone with rather too much gurning as expression for my liking. I say ‘Interloper’ because Grace seems to be a white woman, she is camping on First Nations land, and claims to be researching for her thesis. All, as they say in the classics, is not what it seems.
The question of identity, and identity politics, has tended to be an exploration - if not an accusation - from those on the right of the political spectrum, and has called out those who are deemed ‘too white’ to be considered Aboriginal. This play addresses the question from the other perspective, with Boyd asking his heart wrenching but rhetorical questions, where were you? Why are you here now?
The ‘tick-a-boxers’ or ‘claimers’ must be dealt with, but even within mob it’s a divisive issue, and the thread that runs through this production doesn’t provide any answers. What it does do is make clear that shades of grey are everywhere, but appropriation is never acceptable. The schism that this causes between the protagonists makes the shocking ending inevitable.
It’s not often that audiences gasp these days, but there are three or four places in this play where it is audible. That in itself is a job well done.
At What Cost is a difficult play to review because the revealing of one fact inevitably takes us towards revealing a great deal more. Such is the extremely simple narrative structure of the piece. Suffice to say that in dealing with genocide, and the extinguishing of the Tasmanian Aboriginals as a race, this is not going to have a comfortable ending. And yet to be taken aback by the trajectory of the story and the way it plays out in the final scene, in a gout of red and white lighting, involves a considerable suspension of disbelief.
The message of this play is so much more important than any shortcomings.
When: 20 Jun to 1 Jul
Where: Odeon Theatre