Palawa man Nathan Maynard’s ‘The Season‘ was hailed by me as “a glorious drama” and “an exciting writing debut” in 2017 when I saw it. It brought the pungency and humour of the traditional mutton-birding season on the Bass Strait Islands off the Tasmanian coast richly to life.
Four years later, the maturer playwright has taken us into a much more political side of Palawa life on Lutruwita – the much debated and increasingly legalled subject of who really is Indigenous on the island. For, of course, we whitefellars are often blamed for hailing Truganini as the ‘The Last Tasmanian’ when her and others’ offspring were certainly there all the time, however much they may have attempted to deny it at the end of the Nineteenth Century.
Today, with so much greater acceptance of First Nations identity and culture, it’s a lot more desirable to be Aboriginal, and, it would seem, many ‘claimers’ are coming out of the woodwork. They see themselves as HATs – Hidden Aborigines of Tasmania. To Boyd Mansell (Luke Carroll), the main protagonist in the play, ‘At What Cost?‘, they’re “Tick-a-box cunts”! No meeting of the ways there.
Unfortunately for Boyd, his wife Nala (a Maynard – played by Sandy Greenwood) and his coz Daniel (Ari Maza Long) are slightly more open to compromise – especially Daniel when he’s lead into the off-stage tent of the lovely Gracie (Alex Malone), who’s ostensibly studying the awful ways of Dr William Crowther. Crowther was the surgeon (and later Premier) who removed King Billy’s skull in 1869 and may (or may not) have packed it off to the Royal College of Surgeons in London to gain a Fellowship. King Billy, was William Lanne, last of the Oyster Bay tribe in southern Tassie, husband of Truganini and an active whaler once the rest of his tribe had been wiped out in the Black War.
Maynard’s play centres on the fictional return of Lanne’s skull. A skull identified as Lanne’s was brought back in 1991, but subsequently re-identified. More recently it’s believed that all of the Royal College of Surgeons’ bone collection was destroyed by German bombs in the War. But hope springs eternal, especially in Boyd’s big heart.
For he is the Land Council appointed guardian of Aboriginal land at Putalina – Oyster Cove. It’s obviously the place where Lanne’s skull will be given its ceremonial rites and ultimately placed in a fire so that his spirit can rise with the smoke to join “the sky mob” of his ancestors. Boyd will be the fire lighter.
Much effort goes into the construction of this very formal fire as Boyd’s investment in the ceremony builds, and as his distaste for ‘claimers’ grows in parallel. In a fine spirit of balance for this impasse, Gracie is given some reasonable arguments as to why the Aboriginal monopoly maintained by people originating from the north-east of Tassie – the Trawlwoolway tribe – should allow them to rule the roost in the south at Oyster Bay. Especially as she has come to the splendid conclusion that William Lanne had to be her great-great-etc Grandfather.
It’s at this point that Gracie begins to lose the audience – especially First Nations members of it. For her insistence that it would “culturally unsafe” for her to justify her ancestry gets a wave of ironic guffaws, and her eventual revelation that she just longs to be in the Indigenous zeitgeist is the final straw. Tragically, the pressures on Boyd and the potential defection of his wife and nephew lead him astray – but not before he’s made an impassioned speech about the claimers: “Where were they when…..” all of the racism and intergenerational trauma that he and other identifying people had to suffer were the norm in Tasmania????
Luke Carroll is superb as his own one man mob, and is well supported by the other cast members, not mention Brendon Boney’s subtle musical accompaniment and Isaac Drandic’s competent direction.
‘At What Cost?’ is at the Belvoir Theatre until 20th February, and will surely play Tasmania too.