Review by Alison Stoddart
At What Cost at the Belvoir is a piece of theatre that is stellar in all aspects of its performance. If a feature of the arts is to hold up a mirror to society’s imperfections and racial integrity, to draw attention to unconscious biases, then the brilliant writing of this play achieves that in abundance.
Set in Tasmania, Palawa elder Boyd has been elected to oversee the land and to protect it from the HAT people (Hidden Aboriginals of Tasmania) who claim to be Palawa but have no proof. Boyd is also taking charge of the long-awaited return of the skull of a Palawa man, the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine, from an English museum. It is his job to cremate the remains in Palawa tradition aided by his pregnant wife Nala and his cousin Daniel, a boy who belonged to the land but went to the city. Daniel is a character that increasingly reflects the growing moral conflict of the audience. These three are joined by Gracie, an anthropology student who seems to have taken the romanticism of her studies a bit too far. She claims to be camping out on Palawa land to undertake research for her PhD but even though her façade is portraying sensitivity and respect, she has a hidden agenda, something that Boyd senses from the start. Gracie with all her virtue signalling, and even though she knows more about his culture than he does, plays identity politics and claims a Palawa ancestor. In this way she joins the ranks of the ‘tick-a-boxers’ as Boyd likes to refer to them . When Boyd queries her in any way about this ancestor Gracie evades his curiosity neatly. Feeling threatened is a very convenient answer he states. There is also a throwaway reference to Gracie’s eye colour, which speaks louder than any words can to the veracity of her claim.
In the end it doesn’t matter if Gracie does or does not have a distant Palawa ancestor. What only matters is that she is a ginger haired, freckle skinned, blue eyed white woman. And the advantages that come with being born with that skin colour is undeniable, however one sugar-coats, denies or prevaricates around it. In contrast, Boyd is a black eyed, brown haired, dark skinned indigenous man. His recounting of the bullying he received at school, the disadvantages he accepts as daily life, is something that Gracie can’t ever understand. For you never get a day off from being a black person.
The play is about identity and what that means you when have no control about your own. In the end the play raises more questions than it answers. We are ultimately left with the question of what to do? Something that Boyd shockingly answers in his own way.
The costumes and set design were simple yet effective with elegantly stripped back boughs of trees echoing the Tasmanian old growth forests, artfully arranged over the final part of the play to produce the funeral byre upon which the repatriated skull would lay. The lighting evoked the space of the night sky with a twinkling backdrop and the sounds of the land heard lightly.
At What Cost with its insightful and conflicting themes, is thought provoking and its encouragement of internal deliberation makes for rewarding viewing.