At What Cost?
Belvoir Street Theatre
Writer: Nathan Maynard
Director: Isaac Drandic
January 29 – February 3, 2022
The powerful and tragic At What Cost? is without a doubt a play that cannot be missed. Writer Nathan Maynard addresses hard truths from Tasmania’s past that must be told but also tackles vexatious issues of the Australian post-colonial present. While brilliantly exposing the problem of white usurpation of Aboriginal identity and culture, Maynard also dissects the desperation of the usurper.
The play opens ingeniously. We are introduced into the warm and loving little Palawa household of Boyd (Luke Carroll) and Nala (Sandy Greenwood) expecting their first child and confident in their future. Nala is immensely proud of her husband who is held in deep respect by the little community at the reappropriated Oyster Bay and he is immensely proud of his Palawa descent and cultural duties. When Nala announces that Lanne is returning home at last, it is a joyous moment.
Lanne who died in 1869 was the last “full-blooded” man of Lutrawita (Tasmania) and an appalling reminder of the policy of Aboriginal genocide. After his death his body was first mutilated and then stolen by surgeon William Crowther and finally sent to England where it was exhibited in the British Museum. When Nala proudly announces that Boyd has been chosen to guide Lanne on his journey to join the sky mob, while he is proud of the privilege, Boyd is uneasy. The lessons of the past are not forgotten and he fears that this triumphant moment will somehow be stolen away by “claimants” or “ticks-boxes”.
Neither Nala nor Boyd’s young “cuz” Daniel (Ari Maza Long), a recent urban arrival into the Oyster Bay community, seem to share Boyd’s fearfulness. There is justice in Boyd’s anger with those who now claim Aboriginality in view of the scholarships, grants and land rights but it seems he is allowing his obsession to spoil the present moment. We might dismiss his frightening dream as the product of an unhealthy fixation, but could it be a warning? Will he be betrayed by both the loving Nala and the admiring but ingenuous Daniel? We notice more and more the eerie sighs and gasps that seems to confirm Boyd’s increasing anger and despair.
There has been trouble in paradise almost right from the start. Those same stars that look down so comfortingly on the happy home also look down on the tent of a white PhD student, Gracie (Alex Malone). Daniel who is attracted to her warns Gracie to be careful as there might be a snake in the long grass … and indeed there is.
The sly Gracie does steal the moment and the future of Nala, Boyd, their child, and Daniel. It is the how and the why that makes Gracie key to understanding the dangerous game that we are playing at present. The problem is troubling and complex: maybe considering the stolen generation, the violation of Aboriginal women, the constraint to deny Aboriginality are all reasons why individuals either did not know or hid their descent but on the other hand, it is hard to deny Boyd – a remarkably moving performance by Carroll – proud in his possum cloak and ochre-streaked body, his truth. Perhaps the cultural “accommodation” we practice is another form of genocide.
Directed with a coherent vision, the cast as a whole give unforgettable performances. The natural Greenwood is wonderfully convincing and the moment she confronts Gracie with her own memory of what was said in the past is a highlight of the play. The painful conflict and confusion of the young Daniel is sensitively captured by Long and it is a positive pleasure to despise the creepy Grace as portrayed by Malone.