Unfinished business

Belvoir, February 18

KILL the Messenger is as simple as theatre gets. There’s a bare space – designer Ralph Myers in particularly pared-back mode – and some projected photographs, five actors, a couple of props, 75 minutes and we’re done.

The rigour, almost at the level of ruthlessness, is thrilling. Playwright Nakkiah Lui requires your attention and she gets it not with tricks and trimmings but with theatre’s most basic tools: a story and actors to tell it in a way that excites the emotions and demands immersion in its ideas. There’s a touch of the slide-show theatre so eloquently developed by William Yang and elements of documentary theatre intertwined with fictionalised narrative, all handled with a tremendously sure touch.

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lui’s searing first play, This Heaven, was seen at Belvoir two years ago in the small Downstairs theatre and it was clear there was an important new theatrical voice in town. Kill the Messenger is in the bigger Upstairs space and it deserves the room.

An aside: Ralph Myers’s artistic directorship has been notable for the openings he has given to Indigenous theatre artists and to women. Obviously Lui ticks both those boxes at the same time, which is pleasing. Naturally the nay-sayers will want to call this political correctness. It’s not – it’s correcting the bias of god knows how many decades and it is good. And good not just because it’s righting a wrong, but because it’s producing great work. But back to the work at hand …

Kill the Messenger slips easily back and forth in time and between real life and imagined encounters as Lui examines how easily people – her people, Aboriginal people – can essentially be invisible in a white world. The politics are strong and well argued but there’s a deep pool of personal grief too. Lui’s grandmother, Joan, died after an ages-old bureaucratic arrangement meant no one took any responsibility for her rotting home. No care, either.

There is a heart-rending photograph of Joan after she fell through the floor of her termite-infested home. We’ve already seen her looking suitably grandmotherly, with soft white hair and dark specs. Now the skin around her eyes is angrily puffed and red. The glasses are gone, obviously, because who needs them in a hospital bed, and anyway, they would be too painful to wear. Lui rightly lets the image pretty much speak for itself.

It’s par for the course for young Indigenous playwrights to be called “angry” and ”raw”. They are clichés really, just like older Aboriginal men and women are always, but always, described as “dignified” in a way older white people rarely are. These things are intended as compliments, of course, but I’m not sure that the thinking behind them is particularly deep. Lui touches on this early in Kill the Messenger when she says: “You want this to feel raw and honest, like a real snippet of an experience; an Aboriginal experience … Here is my tale of black oppression”.

She is being truthful but ironic too. The audience, which generally speaking is overwhelmingly white, wants a story. Lui wants to engage in something truthful, which is why she says her play doesn’t have an ending. Which it obviously does have, at the 75-minute mark when we leave the theatre, and doesn’t have in the sense that the issues are in any way resolved. It’s an unfinished play because it’s unfinished business. There are lots of layers – Lui doesn’t have a law degree for nothing.

Kill the Messenger was created from the knowledge that Indigenous Australians suffer injustices and slights that others do not and they can have dire consequences, so in that sense there is anger. But there is also great sadness and frustration, and in this play a challenge to audience members to examine their own actions and perceptions. Kill the Messenger is far from a one-note outburst.

The play’s second strand involves a young man, Paul (Lasarus Ratuere), whose drug addiction made him unwelcome when he sought medical care. Because she never met him Lui dramatises his plight and creates an incredibly sympathetic portrait of a charming, vivid, damaged soul. His sister Harley (Katie Beckett) comes alive explosively as she struggles with her wayward sibling’s failings and also tries to get answers from Alex (Matthew Backer), an emergency department nurse whose situation is not as black and white as it may seem.

Sam O’Sullivan as Lui’s boyfriend Peter completes the fine cast – almost.

Lui’s boldest stroke is to put herself in the play, right at its centre. Sometimes she’s acting herself (she’s very good), often she talks directly to the audience and near the end she touchingly places herself in conversation with Paul, who we know from the play’s first moments is going to kill himself. Lui has great stage presence – she’s warm, direct, unaffected and game. As she comments after getting close and personal with O’Sullivan, she thought when she wrote Kill the Messenger that elfin Miranda Tapsell would be playing her. Very cute.

Lui is sharp, funny, passionate and compassionate. She knows how to shape a debate, when to get mad and when to stay calm, and not necessarily in the places you might expect. Kill the Messenger simultaneously draws you in and keeps you on your toes, which makes for stimulating and entertaining theatre. The writing and construction show no signs of strain, for which praise must go also to director Anthea Williams and dramaturg Jada Alberts.

And I love that Lui will get out there every night to tell and retell what happened to Joan and Paul. It’s as if she doesn’t quite trust us; that we might otherwise be able to tuck this away as fiction if she’s not there to bear witness.

Joan. Her name was Joan.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 20.

Ends March 8.

February wrap

A quick look at what February brought in the theatre in Sydney, and beyond …

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

AT this year’s Perth International Arts Festival I was able to see, in one evening, the festival’s biggest and smallest pieces of theatre – The Threepenny Opera from the Berliner Ensemble, weighing in at about three hours and filling His Majesty’s Theatre, and Remor, an 11-minute piece for two performers, an audience of about 10 and taking place in a space smaller than many a garden shed. Fittingly, the Remor shed was indeed inside the Festival Gardens.

I don’t think it’s a festival unless I can see at least two performances in one day – I’d prefer to see three or four; just a personal quirk – so the Threepenny Opera/Remor day was a satisfying one. Remor was a wordless physical theatre in which a man and a woman, oblivious to one another, enacted the terrifying restlessness of someone locked away with no hope of release. It was rough, sweaty theatre.

The Threepenny Opera was the exact reverse: urbane, sophisticated, knowing, visually exquisite and performed with immense poise, clarity and wit. I loved that the actors weren’t much chop as singers but put their songs across as if they were; I loved that Macheath looked like a perverse version of matinee idol Leslie Howard, Peachum as if he were wearing a Noh mask and Tiger Brown as a ringer for Conrad Veidt in his Cabinet of Dr Caligari days; I adored the band playing that tremendous Kurt Weill music … Well, you get the picture. It was a brilliant piece of programming from Jonathan Holloway.

Back in Sydney, February offered theatre productions as diverse as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (Gaiety Theatre in association with Mardi Gras), George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (Sydney Theatre Company), Great Falls by Lee Blessing (The Ensemble) and This Heaven by Nakkiah Lui, at Belvoir Downstairs.

Torch Song Trilogy suffered from feeling and looking like a museum piece. Director Stephen Colyer didn’t find a way of bringing the politics and emotional tangles into the here and now, where they certainly still exist. Great Falls isn’t such a great play – too contrived in so many places – but under director Anna Crawford, Erica Lovell and Christopher Stollery give cracking performances which almost persuade you the play has more merit than it does.

Mrs Warren’s Profession is a play Sydney Theatre Company subscribers appear to have been hanging out for. An extension was announced before it even opened. The question of how one is to survive in an unequal world is evergreen, as is the question of who gets to judge whom. Sarah Giles’s production is a little too cool for my taste, with Lizzie Schebesta getting the rectitude of Vivie but not enough else. Helen Thomson is seen to great advantage as Mrs Warren, her ripeness a welcome contrast to the brittleness of the rest, but I don’t think I was supposed to side with her as strongly as I did.

Lui’s This Heaven is the work of a young writer with a supple voice and something to say. Under Lee Lewis’s direction it has emerged as a shattering piece of theatre. In its essentials the story is far from unique. There’s an Aboriginal man from out west in Sydney, an arrest, a death, the attempt to get justice, the failure to get it, the inevitable anger, and a chilling aftermath. The characters are engrossing and the action unfolds as precisely as in an ancient Greek tragedy.

Lui has the ability to see the reality of individuals – how their circumstances, their nature, their ambitions, their limitations shape them – and to show them as flawed and changeable without losing focus or seeming forced. Equally important is how resonant This Heaven is. It’s rooted firmly in a very specific story, but is not limited by it. The play isn’t perfect – there’s a somewhat uneasy start and one or two clunky moments – but it’s been given a superb production that deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. The performances from Jada Alberts, Joshua Anderson, Travis Cardona, Eden Falk and Tessa Rose are tremendously strong, with Cardona and Anderson just heartbreaking.

Great Falls continues at The Ensemble until March 9. This Heaven continues at Belvoir Downstairs until March 18. Mrs Warren’s Profession, until April 6 and July 4-20.