Review: At What Cost? (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 29 – Feb 20, 2022
Playwright: Nathan Maynard
Director: Isaac Drandic
Cast: Luke Carroll, Sandy Greenwood, Alex Malone, Ari Maza Long
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Boyd has a very rich and meaningful life. Not only does he have to make a living to ensure the sustenance of his young family, there are a myriad responsibilities as an Aboriginal leader in Tasmania, that he has to undertake all through the day. The play At What Cost? by Nathan Maynard begins at the point where it is announced, that the remains of an ancestor is being returned to Boyd’s land and family, after being held dishonourably in London for several lifetimes.

The drama intensifies, when the sacred moment is marred by an external entity suddenly claiming to be mob, and insists on being part of rituals meant only for rightful descendants. Maynard’s writing is in a word, explosive. At What Cost? begins with extraordinary vitality, as it establishes the every day existence of its spirited characters, but the profound pain that takes over when Maynard’s real intentions come to the fore, is completely devastating.

It is the story of a colonialism that never ceases; one that morphs and takes by surprise, coming to undermine and subjugate from unpredictable places. Maynard’s searing honesty feels unbearably dangerous, but also absolutely essential. This is art that tells the truth of what routinely happens to our First Nations communities, and art that should shake you to the core as long as you live on this land, regardless of which tribe you belong to.

Director Isaac Drandic too, pulls no punches in his delivery of this incandescently political work. Full of pride, and of righteous anger, the staging puts on display not just the ravages suffered by our Indigenous peoples, but more importantly their eternally indomitable spirit. There is a generosity and vulnerability to At What Cost? that is disarmingly moving, with a crucial message about racial violence that needs urgently to be heeded.

Set design by Jacob Nash succinctly conveys both the material and metaphysical realms of Boyd’s existence, allowing us to, on one hand, identify with the normalcy of his daily life, and on the other, encounter the spirituality that informs all facets of his being. Keerthi Subramanyam’s costumes help provide a sense of immediacy for the personalities we meet, but is especially memorable for a ceremonial cloak that impresses with its beauty and grandeur. Lights by Chloe Ogilvie take us seamlessly from spaces mundane to ethereal, and music by Brendon Boney with sound design by David Bergman, manipulate with precision our emotional responses to each element of the narrative, as it escalates to a feverish pitch.

Actor Luke Carroll brings extraordinary passion to the project. As Boyd, we watch him develop from effortlessly delightful, to frighteningly austere, all while keeping us enchanted. The uncompromising and unapologetic qualities of the play, come through beautifully via Carroll’s powerful delivery. No less affecting is the scintillating Sandy Greenwood, whose embracive naturalism as the effervescent Nala, provides our moral compass with clear guidance, as we navigate trickier portions of the rageful tale. Alex Malone is fantastically excruciating, as the foolish Gracie. It is a courageous and forceful performance that makes its important point, with merciless abandon. Daniel is played by Ari Maza Long, with great charm and humour, for an inspiring portrait of the modern Aboriginal youth, that absolutely teems with compassion.

White supremacy creates racial categories, yet vehemently insists on being blind to their existence. White people often declare ignorance of racial difference, choosing only to believe in the universalities of the species, in an effort to deny the very systems of oppression they have built at the exclusion of others. That is, until aspects of that otherness becomes momentarily appealing, and white people step in to annex it without hesitation, and claim it their own.

In At What Cost?, we see a white person misappropriating and misidentifying cultures, in a way that can only be seen, as a clear extension of racial violence on this land. They feign obliviousness and ignorance, even to the extent of purporting to be doing good for Indigenous lives, but is in fact implementing the perpetual project of colonialism. The continual eradication of Indigenous rights, and removal of the very existence of Indigenous peoples, may not look like the genocide of previous centuries, but is no doubt under way, only in surreptitious guises.