At What Cost? (Queensland Theatre) – theatre review

Moving and at times confronting, At What Cost? leaves the audience in a stunned silence for a moment, until the thunderous applause and standing ovation inevitably follow. It’s a powerful piece of theatre in which the one hour and forty-five minutes without interval seem to fly by.

Indigenous playwright, Nathan Maynard, has crafted a compelling, at-times amusing and ultimately devastating tale in this production which has played to acclaim at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre and features the original cast. Directed by regular collaborator, Isaac Drandic (a Noongar man from W.A.), At What Cost? delves into questions about what makes a person Aboriginal and who has the right to claim they are.

Set in putalina (Oyster Cove) in lutriuwita (Tasmania) , the plays begins with happily married couple, Boyd (Luke Carroll in an unforgettable and ferocious performance) and heavily pregnant Nala (Sandy Greenwood) receiving the good news that the remains of their palawa ancestor, William Lanne, are being returned from a British museum. Boyd, a respected member of his community, is chosen by the Land Council to light the fire for Lanne’s final send-off.

But not all is well. Boyd is troubled by the results of the Tasmanian government’s 2016 decision to allow people to claim palawa heritage without having to provide documentary evidence. He calls them ‘tick-a-boxers’ and doesn’t like how many people are claiming to be Mob, having never had a lived experience of what’s it like to face soul-destroying racism and other systemic challenges.

Outside the property where Boyd and Nala are camped out in their ancestor’s hut, a tent has been erected. White woman, Gracie (Alex Malone) is camping there so she can study William Crowther – the British surgeon who shamefully mutilated Lanne’s body and sold his skull to the British Museum. Gracie gets close to Boyd’s younger cousin, Daniel (Ari Maza Long), and Boyd becomes more and more suspicious of her motives and behaviour.

A centerpiece of the stage design (a visually stunning creation by Jacob Nash) is the funeral pyre which Boyd erects throughout the play from logs lying around the outer sides. It becomes an imposing structure and plays a significant role in the action as things develop.

Maynard, a trawlwoolway and pakana man from larapuna country (north-east Tasmania), has written something very personal for him and which has huge repercussions across this country. Some of the words spoken, including where characters play devil’s advocate, might be uncomfortable to hear. But he’s determined to speak out in the open of what he feels needs to be said about the consequences of the government’s decision, hence the title and its implication of what cost the decision is having on Indigenous communities.

Performances are excellent all around, with the cast having obviously built up a trust and rapport from their Belvoir Street season. Brisbane audiences will be similarly impressed with this latest production from Queensland Theatre.

At What Cost? is playing at the Bille Brown Theatre, West End, Meanjin/Brisbane until 10 June 2023.

Vicki Englund

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