Review: At What Cost? at Belvoir

ReviewBy James Ong

The very nature of Australia’s sordid history of genetic assimilation makes the tricky question of being white passing infinitely more complex. As more people discover their family lineage and make the personal journey of rejoining their lost families, skepticism is inevitable. Are they legitimate? Are they there to ‘tick a box’? Who has the right to decide if people are genuine? Obviously these are not questions that non-Indigenous Australians can or should be answering and it’s always refreshing to see these important and complex conversations take place with Indigenous voices at the forefront. At What Cost? now playing in Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre does just that, with a commanding and nuanced portrayal of generational trauma. We are introduced to Boyd and Nala, a Palawa couple who live on reclaimed land in rural Tasmania as they prepare to receive the remains of a lost ancestor, stolen by the colonial British generations ago. But as they get ready for the burning ceremony the help put their family member to rest, an outsider takes a suspiciously keen interest. Writer Nathan Maynard and Director Isaac Drandic delicately tell an intimate and tight-scoped story, that speaks to centuries of communal pain and political structure that keeps the First Nations people in the same place of torment today. Luke Carroll’s central performance of Boyd is fuelled a loving dedication to his family and with a biting rage towards the threats around him. The trauma inflicted by a system that has a seeming disregard for you and your people will seldom lead to an open heart and in Boyd’s case, we have a proud Palawa man fighting to balance his responsibilities as a husband/soon-to-be father and as a leader in his community. Sandy Greenwood’s Nala and Ari Maza Long’s Daniel provide hearty compassion and optimism as a counterbalance, but the palpable heartache remain just beneath the surface. Alex Malone gives an endearing and alluring performance as the shortsighted, but somewhat innocuous outsider, Gracie. In fact that endearing nature of Gracie is what lends such an uncertain tension to proceedings. For a show that is built on the displacement and systemic degradation of the First Nations people of Australia, we organically grow weary of the caucasian (presenting) individuals who glide through their lives. Set designer Jacob Nash keeps things to the fundamentals, but makes sure to fill the minimal components with purpose and beauty. The somewhat sparse stage smartly serves the dual purpose of portraying the beauty and vastness of the land, but also displays how little stock this family holds in the capitalist system of modern Australia. A spiritual connection to the power of something greater, that is tied down by needing to function in the world today. Light-bars in the floor evoke tree roots sprouting forth and spreading throughout the space, like the veins of a thriving country buried beneath our feet. At What Cost? wisely chooses not to be definitive in the blood quantum debate, instead letting Indigenous voices authentically explain the difficulties of accepting those into a community who have not personally experienced the racial abuse and systemic oppression they’ve been enduring and fighting against for generations. The show is forceful in presenting us the long lasting effects that our shameful history has on First Nations people and how, in many respects, Australia continues to colonise today.


Image Credit Brett Boardman