There’s an old, insidious myth that there were no Aboriginal people in lutriwita (Tasmania) after British colonisation. It’s something Palawa have been fighting for decades to disprove and now they have the added difficulty of a rising popularity in reclaiming disowned Aboriginality, people uncovering buried ancestry or following family rumours and wanting recognition of their Palawa inheritance.
Nathan Maynard’s newest script is an incisive examination of the social and political climate of lutriwita (Tasmania) today. Set in the reclaimed Aboriginal settlement in putalina (Oyster Cove), At What Cost? investigates the thorny sides of identity including recognition, belonging, and the heavy intergenerational trauma of surviving genocide. The past and the future come together in putalina (Oyster Cove) when the remains of William Lanne are finally returned and a woman claiming to be his granddaughter arrives with hopes of igniting her connection to place and community. Maynard doesn’t offer an easy solution to reconciling lutriwita’s (Tasmania) painful colonial history but there are hints to a path forward that honours and acknowledges the losses from the past.
Direction from Isaac Drandic was tense as the pressure of returning Lanne’s remains appropriately built against the political forces bubbling underneath modern Palawa identity politics. Even the calmer moments of personal intimacy between the characters didn’t provide relief as they seemed to rest on a knife-edge, awaiting a misplaced word or ill-timed confession. The production captured the climax of political tension but it was easy to extrapolate that kind of grinding, exhausting pressure to the daily struggle of activists and those, like Palawa, fighting an oppressive, genocidal system. While Maynard’s script seemed to allow for sympathetic readings of the characters, some choices in characterisation by Drandic drew a hard line between “good” and “bad” in the story which didn’t allow for additional nuance or complexity in the discussion of identity and healing and gave the production a harsher sense of its own morality.
Boyd (Luke Carroll) was a hard figure, sharpened by the responsibility of protecting the settlement in putalina (Oyster Cove) and maintaining his community’s Aboriginal heritage. His wife Nala (Sandy Greenwood) was softer, holding their position as community leaders with a lighter hand. The two had a fiery dynamic but Carroll and Greenwood were strong equals, even in their disagreement. As a representative of a younger generation, Daniel (Ari Maza Long) had a recognisable approach to his heritage, deference with a smidge of dismissal, as he hoped for a future with less confrontation. Long’s characterisation was cheeky and a bit self-conscious which made Daniel quite endearing. And then there was the disruptive force of Gracie (Alex Malone), a blast from Nala’s past who arrived in putalina (Oyster Cove) with a deeply held belief in her connection to the place. Malone’s Gracie was determined to the point of stubborn but with moments that revealed a buried vulnerability which could have softened her and made her actions more understandable if her confessional mode leant more lost than whiny. For such a small cast, they carried the weight of the production well and with a believable interpersonal dynamic which worked wonders for humanising the overarching politics of Maynard’s script.
The set design by Jacob Nash was evocative with white driftwood limbs bordering the stage like the fence around the settlement, which Boyd used to build Lanne’s funeral pyre, literally lessening the border and symbolically weakening the distinction between inside and outside the community. Similarly, the sweeping landscape of putalina (Oyster Cove) was depicted on the walls with brushed metal panelling which subtly alluded to the landscape absorbing and reflecting the actions of those upon it. The lighting design by Chloe Ogilvie introduced a supernatural element to the spirituality of the production with guiding lights or energy paths set into the floor that lit up at key moments, awakening the earth. The overall production design was reserved yet sophisticated, allowing the emotions of the performances to fill the space as well.
It’s not often the mainland turns its attention to the surrounding islands but the implications of how lutriwita (Tasmania) negotiates its traumatic history and painful, complex present will reverberate past Palawa and settler Tasmanians to all conversations about Aboriginality, institutional recognition, and identity.
At What Cost? is running at Belvoir from January 29th – February 20th
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