The air appears to crackle as the audience take their seats at Belvoir St Theatre, looking upon a landscape of Putalina/Oyster Cove, Tasmania, ringed by bleached driftwood, painted dunes, a minimalist kitchen interior and a spectacular mantle of stars. The set design (Jacob Nash), lighting (Chloe Ogilvie) and stunning score (Brendon Boney) enmesh for this hit touring production, written and associate directed by Nathan Maynard and directed by Isaac Drandic.
Boyd (Luke Carroll) and Nala (Sandy Greenwood) are a First Nations Palawa couple, raucously in love, expecting a baby and caretaking sacred, traditional land. Boyd is a community leader and soon they hear the news that the remains of William ‘King Billy’ Lanne, stolen by the British and taken to the UK, are to be returned and repatriated, and that Boyd has the honour of performing the funerary ritual as the ‘fire-maker’.
Boyd’s cousin, Daniel (Ari Maza Long), arrives, and while there is much affection between them, Daniel grew up away from Country in the city, and Boyd insists on teasing him for it and his work at a fancy non-profit organisation. Long gives a lovely, sensitive performance of insecurity and yearning to fit in, as the character complains how hard it was initially to return, and meditates on his place and identity.
Boyd has strong opinions about who gets to claim Indigeneity, railing against those whom he calls “tick-a-boxes” in order to seek benefits, while Daniel and Nala have a more nuanced approach. If not accepting, they are at least more understanding of those who want to reconnect with and acknowledge their Palawa heritage.
As Boyd collects the driftwood to create a magnificent pyre, which becomes the potent focal hinge of the piece, a young PhD student named Gracie (Alex Malone) turns up, doing research on King Billy and immediately forming a romantic relationship with Daniel, to Boyd’s disapproval. Tension simmers. Gracie grew up with Nala and their friendship rekindles, and eventually she reveals to all what her actual purpose is being there.
The play addresses the myth of the ‘lost’ First Nations Tasmanians, and all the old wounds and scar tissue of grief and anger at a history of massacre and assimilation. When King Billy’s remains return, an incandescently enraged Boyd has an ‘Alas, poor Yorick!’ moment at the vile injustice perpetrated against his ancestors that reverberates into the present.
While the symbolism in At What Cost? is never subtle, it does not need to be, propelled as it is like a cannonball of raw feeling. All four actors are superb as they grapple with the complexities of what reconciliation may even begin to look like in modern Australia.
At What Cost? by Nathan Maynard
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
Director: Isaac Drandic
Associate Director: Nathan Maynard
Set Designer: Jacob Nash
Costume Designer and Set Realiser: Keerthi Subramanyam
Lighting Designer: Chloe Ogilvie
Lighting Realiser: Kelsey Lee
Composer: Brendon Boney
Sound Designer: David Bergman
Fight and Movement Director: Nigel Poulton
Intimacy Coordinator: Chloë Dallimore
Vocal Coach: Laura Farrell
Dramaturgical Consultant: Peter Matheson
Stage Manager: Steph Storr
Assistant Stage Manager: Mia Kanzaki
Cast: Luke Carroll, Sandy Greenwood, Alex Malone, Ari Maza Long
At What Cost? will be performed until 21 May in Sydney before touring to Queensland Theatre from 25 May- 10 June, State Theatre Company South Australia from 16 June -1 July and The Theatre Royal Hobart from 6-8 July.