At What Cost
Written by Nathan Maynard
Belvoir St Theatre
Originally Published at: At What Cost? - Belvoir St Theatre (NSW) (theatrethoughtsaus.online)
At What Cost? follows the return of ancestor William Lanne's skull to its homeland. After his death in 1869, the corpse of William Lanne (the last full-blooded Aboriginal in Tasmania) was publicly dismembered and mutilated; his skull removed and sent to the United Kingdom where it remained for more than 100 years. The play is set in 1995, when Lanne's skull is finally returned to the Palawa community on Putalina country (Oyster Cove, Tasmania).
Written by Nathan Maynard, a Trawlwoolway, Pakana man, the work provides insight into Aboriginal Australian history and challenges us to ask questions and educate ourselves. The writing is brutally honest, funny, and frighteningly close to reality. As a white person, I felt winded by confrontation from how familiar many of the jokes were; racist attitudes I’d seen or overheard in recent months. It highlighted that despite the hundreds of years that have passed, indigenous Australians are still being exploited by government systems and societal attitudes that undermine their wellbeing and culture. This is demonstrated through the character Gracie, a box ticking white supremist who claims to be a descendant of William Lanne despite having no apparent connection to the land, the language, or the culture.
Photos by Brett Boardman
Directed by Noongar man Isaac Drandic, the performance leans into the humour, whilst still maintaining a powerful, raw energy, fuelled by vulnerability, righteousness, and hurt. Using jokes to highlight the horrific suffering was such a powerful tool, reflecting the ‘laugh it off’ attitude Australia’s taken with the continued invalidation, exploitation, and misappropriation of culture.
Jacob Nash’s set is open and bare, bordered by age bleached gum tree branches under a blanket of stars. On one side of the stage is a living room/kitchen area with table and chairs which conveys a normalcy of everyday living and the walls stained with ochre. In the cremation ceremony scene, elements from around the set are used to build up a bon fire, physically building on the enormity of the scene. Chloe Ogilvie’s lighting informs and transports the story; taking us from the living area to the vast, sacred landscapes. Keerthi Subramanyam’s costumes reflected the normalcy of everyday life as well as informing us about each character. The costuming highlight was Boyd’s change from regular clothes into the ceremonial cloak. After painting himself with ochre, Boyd puts on the skin of a Kangaroo; a precious, gifted item which historically had drawings and designs incised into the pelt’s underside which told a story of the wearers’ clan groups and life story.
Luke Carroll performs the role of Boyd; proud Palawa man with deep connections to country. Carroll embodied a well realised character with great depth and vulnerability, his portrayal is gut wrenching, all-consuming and raw. We see so many sides of Boyd as the work unfolds; a loved up, goofy father to be, the complex family man accommodating his cousin who’s just returned after being away from mob, and a spiritual man, so intrinsically connected to the beliefs that drive every facet of his life.
Sandy Greenwood grounded the production with her portrayal of Nala. As the moral compass of the family, Nala is compassionate and compromising, and Greenwood’s performance reflected exactly that. Greenwood’s characterisation was warm and loving yet matriarchal, embodying a rich tapestry of heartache, acceptance, and loyalty. She had such a watchable stage presence and her chemistry with each of the characters was extremely believable, creating a solid foundation for the family in the story, as well as for the performers in the ensemble.
In the role of Boyd’s younger cousin Daniel who’s recently returned from living in Melbourne is Ari Maza Long. Portraying a modern, young Aboriginal man, Long brilliantly embodies this dissonant character; torn between wanting to move forward, to let go some of the intergenerational trauma and remaining loyal to his cultural practises. Alex Malone shone in her portrayal of Gracie; brilliantly performing this excruciatingly ignorant, self-obsessed white supremacist. Her timing was well executed which was vital to ensure the humour landed as most of the jokes were made at her expense.
At What Cost? is a tragedy of intergenerational trauma, grief, and the continued exploitation of First Nations culture. It highlights the white settler-inflicted horrors that fill our history, and how far we still must come to ensure Aboriginal Australians get equitable treatment in our country. The ensemble delivers a story of love, pride and continuing tragedy that is powerful, insightful, and incredibly thought provoking.