Saturday, February 21, 2015

Kill the Messenger by Nakkiah Lui

Illustration by Julian Meagher

Kill the Messenger by Nakkiah Lui.  Directed by Anthea Williams; set designer, Ralph Myers; lighting by Katie Sfetkidis; costumes, Mel Page; dramaturg, Jada Alberts.  Indigenous theatre at Belvoir, suppported by The Balnaves Foundation at Belvoir Upstairs, February 18 – March 8, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 20

Author: Nakkiah Lui

Kill the Messenger is a great little play, and a different play.  It is a modern play.  As I left the theatre, I was confronted by the vociferous excitable melee of Friday night revellers bunched around the restaurants in Elizabeth Street, and wondered what world I was in.  This was not where I had been for the previous hour and a half.

Great big plays of the past, let’s say by Sophocles or Shakespeare, were set in another time and/or place.  For the characters, the story might be personal, but the audience knew that after the emotional engagement, their task was to interpret the author’s intention.  What does Oedipus’ tragic unwitting mistake in marrying his mother tell us about the human condition?  Are the gods worthy of our continuing belief, or might not we be better off to forget them?  How does the ex-king’s son, Hamlet, deal with his uncle’s perfidy?  Is the play in 1604 a warning not to continue to rely on the honesty and propriety of the new King of England, James the First (also James the Sixth of Scotland).

We may look back on these plays and see how the ancient Greeks took the first steps which established the scientific method, without the need to believe in gods, and how the next King of England, Charles the First, was killed in 1649, and how the Commonwealth Parliament ran without a king for 11 years, establishing the principle that the Parliament would choose who would be King for evermore.

Nakkiah Lui has set her play in her time and place: St Marys in Western Sydney where her Nanna fell through the white-ant rotten floor of 37 Griffith Street, owned but never maintained by HFA – Housing for Aborigines – despite years of complaints.

Nakkiah Lui (Nanna on screen)

On the screens which are the backdrop we see the photos of Nakkiah’s family, including herself as a child and Nanna, bright, alive, and later near the death caused by the fall.  The time is recent: perhaps it was only yesterday when the phone call came from the hospital, or when Paul hanged himself in the park nearby because the Emergency Department had to make him wait while other more urgent lives were saved – or not, as the case may be.  Nakkiah did not know Paul but had to write his story.  Did she meet him in the park?  If she had, could she have changed his story?

Lasarus Ratuere as Paul

The modern play is immediate, in the here and now.  Unlike the authors Sophocles and Shakespeare, Nakkiah Lui is on stage.  For us, watching, she becomes a character in her own life, frightened even that we, observing from a certain distance, may not appreciate, like, understand her play.  Off stage, Sophocles and Shakespeare surely had the same fears.   On stage last night, at curtain call, in the centre of the line of actors, Lui’s fear was palpable.  This is extreme risk-taking.

Nakkiah Lui

But she needn’t be afraid.  She has written a great work, even if not on the grand scale.  Our engagement in the emotions of the characters, including the author herself, inevitably embraces us, urging us on to understand her intention.  Beyond the question of why are Aboriginal people still treated as beneath rather than of equal standing to others, is the more frightening concern.  Is life truly out of our control?  Are we kidding ourselves?  Like Nakkiah, we write our stories of our lives as if things make sense, as if there is some sort of order in our universe.  But at curtain call we must face up to the possibility that we cannot understand the what and why of life.

Shakespeare, perhaps seeing himself in Prospero, came to this point in The Tempest.  Lui has proved that she, a Gamilaroi / Torres Strait Islander, stands equal among her playwriting peers.

The performances and direction of this production are exemplary, and must provide Lui with a great sense of support.  Each part requires emotional expression of sensitivity and guts, in a structure of short scenes, and each actor – Matthew Backer (the ER nurse Alex), Katie Beckett (Paul’s sister Harley), Sam O’Sullivan (Peter, Nakkiah’s boyfriend and confidant), Lasarus Ratuere (Paul) and Nakkiah Lui as herself – has created an instantly real character.  Their work, under Anthea Williams’ precise direction, draws us into a weird experience where the borderline between what might or might not be fiction or fact keeps shifting, like those metaphorical goalposts.

The result is outstanding and should not be missed.  But give yourself a little time outside afterwards to adjust.

It’s important to realise that Nakkiah Lui is writing within a new tradition of Indigenous playwriting, presented on our mainstages.  Belvoir and The Balnaves Foundation have been crucial to this development.

Two plays earlier in this tradition are the Noongar story of Yibiyung by Dallas Winmar, 2008 (in association with Malthouse, Melbourne) and Conversations with the Dead by Richard Frankland, 2003, both directed by Wesley Enoch at Belvoir.  My reviews of these plays were published in the Canberra Times and can also be found on my personal blog at .

The script of Kill the Messenger is also published by Currency Press, 2015.

Nakkiah Lui as Author with Sam O'Sullivan as boyfriend and confidant Peter

Paul in the Park
(Lasarus Ratuere)

Matthew Backer as Alex

Katie Beckett as Harley
Lasarus Ratuere and Katie Beckett

Mathew Backer and Katie Beckett

All photos by Brett Boardman