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Sydney review- At What Cost?: a great Australian play for our times

By Paul Kiely

At What Cost?

By Nathan Maynard

Directed by Isaac Drandic

A Belvoir Street Theatre Production

25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills

Season: 4 May – 21 May 2023. Bookings:

Duration: 105 minutes (No interval)

A troubling issue which seems to unite both black and white in Australia is determining who has the right to claim to be Aboriginal.

In ‘At What Cost?’, playwright and Associate Director Nathan Maynard provides a brief history lesson using humour and drama to give clarity to this complex and emotive question.

Set in current day Tasmania, the story opens with Boyd (Luke Carroll) and his pregnant partner Nala (Sandy Greenwood), fooling around in their kitchen after a hard day’s work.

Boyd’s monologue sets the scene for us: Tasmania’s indigenous population after colonisation was ‘removed’, primarily by genocide, disease and forced relocation to islands in Bass Straight. In recent times, developers tried to use tractors to move his people off their land, only to give up after it got bogged in mud.

This is Palawa land and, as Boyd likes to say, “we planted our black butts here”.

The local Land Council have asked Boyd to conduct a cremation ceremony for the remains of William Lanne. His skull has been returned from a museum in England, having been ‘prized’ by colonists.

However, Boyd’s world is about to implode.

Enter the antagonist Gracie (Alex Malone), a white girl who is camping nearby. She is researching Aboriginal history. Slowly, her presence begins to irritate Boyd.

Firstly, his cousin Daniel (Ari Maza Long) strikes up a relationship with her. Then, she begins to visit the sacred land with greater frequency; she even collects fallen logs for Boyd’s ceremonial fire, much to Boyd’s disdain. Finally, Gracie claims that she is a descendent of William Lanne and feels entitled to be present at the ceremony.

This sets off a chain of events that Boyd cannot stop. The surprising climax is confronting.

Nathan Maynard’s storytelling is concise and gripping. Dialogue is raw. The portrayal of the four characters is outstanding.

The purpose of ‘At What Cost?’ is to promote an awareness of what it is to be an Aboriginal. The character of Boyd is the vehicle used to voice concerns that many Australians have about entitlement. We have a system which allows people to nominate their level of Aboriginality via a tick of a box on a form, with little requirement of viable proof. These are the ‘tick-a-boxes’ or ‘claimers’ that Boyd so despises.

Boyd sums up this ethnic discrepancy when he says there are “Claytons white fellas who identify as black fellas when they’re not.” It’s a statement that could easily apply to the gender-identity debate as well.

Direction from Isaac Drandic is notable. Using a clever set design and sensory lighting and sound effects, a real connection with land was achieved.

The overriding reason for the appeal of ‘At What Cost?’ is the substance of the writing. It does not attempt to dictate an answer; rather is seeks to unify opposing arguments and foster respectful discussion.

‘At What Cost?’ – a great Australian play for our times.


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