Review by Regan Baker
As I walked through the front doors of the Bille Brown Theatre last night it suddenly struck me that 2023 is flying by at such an alarming pace. So fast in fact that we are already up to the fourth Queensland Theatre production for the season! After hitting the ground running in January with Family Values, they continued in their stride with the empowering Drizzle Boy, by Daniel Ennis, and the comically romantic As You Like It, by Damien Ryan. Now into the thick of Winter their storyrelling ventures south into our southernmost state, Tasmania, for At What Cost, a conversation about identity, culture, urgency, and passion. Written by Pakana playwright Nathan Maynard, and directed by Queensland Theatre’s Associate Artist, Isaac Drandic, it is a story that plunges deep into Indigenous history, culture, and current political issues.
The story starts off somewhat slowly, and I must admit, took a little while to get into, but once in the thick of the main plot Maynard’s talent as a playwright really started to shine. His characters are complex and multi-layered, with motivations designed to challenge the audience’s ideas of our nations past and what lies ahead for its future. It was an emotionally captivating piece of theatre that led to significant conversation post-performance regarding the different perspectives of what it does, or could mean, to be an indigenous Australian.
At What Cost features a simple set designed by Jacob Nash of only two locations, where the various sets, props and other elements of the stage remain in front of us throughout the performance. This simplicity in location strengthens the audience’s attention to the spoken word and the story being told, demonstrating a brilliant collaboration between writer and director. As the lighting designer, Chloe Ogilvie created a landscape reflective of the beautiful Oyster Bay, lined with bleached driftwood. The focal point of the set, however, was the central firepit. This significant place was illuminated by white strip lighting that invaded the space between the wood, creating a brilliant symbolic representation of the tick-a-boxers who were invading the cultural traditions of Boyd and his mob who were caretaking the land.
In the role of Daniel, Ari Maza Long delivered a consistent and level-headed performance as a Palawa-born Aborigine who grew up in the city. He yearns to fit in, and provides a beautiful insight into the challenges of returning to country and balancing the ideology of identity. The delivery of his lines was crisp, and his use of tonal changes created a sense of urgency in his messaging, whether this be his innate desire to fit in with his mob, or his longing for a relationship.
Alongside him, the character of Gracie was one that deeply annoyed me, which is exactly what the role required of Alex Malone. In the beginning, she showed us a sweet and sensitive side of Gracie who seemed young and almost a little naive of the importance of cultural ceremony. Throughout the story however, Malone’s facial expressions and actions reeked of a hidden agenda, but was so subtle in her delivery that we found ourselves constantly questioning her position. During the climax of the story her performance was brilliant! She is a true superstar of the stage who provides such depth to her characters and can shift in an instance from sweet and innocent, to manipulative and conniving.
Sandy Greenwood, as Nala, was also superb in her presentation of a complex soon-to-be mother, and wife, who had to juggle her own ideologies with that of her husband’s and her mob’s. She was kind and considerate, but strong-willed in her right to have her own beliefs of cultural identity and what it means to belong. The intricacies and numerous changes of her characters perspective were transferred to the audience with ease, and she was an absolute delight to watch.
The standout performance of the show, however, belongs to that of its’ lead, Luke Carroll, in the role of Boyd. A seasoned performer of stage and screen, including twelve years as a part of the Play School Team, Carroll is an immensely diverse First Nations actor from the Wiradjuri nation. Through his journey of creating the Pyre in which to cremate the long-lost skull of the last full-blooded Palawa man, Carroll’s connection to the character shines. Boyd is so strongly connected to the land and to his culture that he has an inherit mistrust in people and appears almost paranoid in the process. Carroll’s delivery of every inch of the character was perfect, and the audience could feel the passion and the fire in his heart. We were torn between emotions. Is Boyd being paranoid? Is Gracie truly who she says she is? The strength of the emotions he delivered through this journey were powerful beyond anything I have seen in a long time, and sent shivers running down my spine on multiple occasions.
Other than a slow introduction to the story, At What Cost is almost perfect in every way. The simplicity of the set allowed us to focus on the importance of the story, and the casting of the four characters was exceptional. Artistic Director for Queensland Theatre, Lee Lewis, states in the shows program, “This is a play we need to see,” and Lee – I couldn’t agree more!