Sunday, March 17, 2019

How to Rule the World

Michelle Lim Davidson, Nakkiah Lui, Anthony Taufa

How to Rule the World by Nakkiah Lui.  Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, February 11 – March 30, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 16

2430 years ago, Aristophanes ripped into the stupidly destructive power play between ancient Sparta and his home town Athens in his satiric play Lystrata.  The women made it plain: no sex until you stop fighting.

William Shakespeare began his lifetime criticism of the rule of absolute monarchs (ie Queen Elizabeth) in the 1580s (Henry VI, Richard III) but soon realised he had to write obliquely, for his own safety, and turned to comedy (The Comedy of Errors and Taming of the Shrew)

In 1677 Aphra Behn established the place of women writers in The Rover, or The Banish'd Cavaliers, her satiric re-write of Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso.

As World War I approached, George Bernard Shaw used the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion in his most enduring comedy of manners, of Professor Henry Higgins and flower-girl Eliza Doolittle, nowadays in the musical form of My Fair Lady.

This is one tradition in which Nakkiah Lui has written How to Rule the World.

Fortunately she is in less physical danger from power-figures than Shakespeare, writing very directly about our current state of political shenanigans through the attempt by a threesome of millennials to create their own white non-entity independent Senator (à la Ricky Muir):

  • a substantial urban educated Aboriginal woman very like the author, and played by Lui herself (Vic),
  • a quite diminutive Asian immigrant-family woman, equally urban and educated, (Zaza, played by Michelle Lim Davidson)
  • and a Kanaka-family Pacific Islander, physically large and assumed by whites to be a bouncer – but also highly urban and educated (Chris played by Anthony Taufa).

The action focusses on their Pygmalionic choice, Lewis Lewis – a blank-slate with no family or friends nor any interests, especially in politics – who becomes 'Tommy Ryan' (I wondered if Lui knew about Thomaso), but who has one secret to be revealed in the play’s climactic point.  Hamish Michael is remarkable in this comic role (remember the slightly gormless Richard Stirling in The Crownies?), in a complete personal development transition from blankness to prime ministership.

The dramatic tension is built around the upcoming federal election in the first half, and the result in the Senate for the incumbent Prime Minister, played with elegant flair by Rhys Muldoon.

And just watch out for the amazing array of characters played by Vanessa Downing and Gareth Davies, including something vaguely akin to Barnaby J.

To tell you in more detail how this cleverly constructed absurdist satire progresses would be a spoiler.  Each scene and shift between scenes is surprising.  From the beginning we, watching, were in fits of laughter, eyes filled with tears.  At the very end, the satire bites – only the tears remain, in a play about the universal conflict between two human needs: for love and for power; for compassion and for success; for the personal and the political.

It is this depth at the core of the satire that firmly places Nakkiah Lui in this long theatrical tradition.

The directing, design (set and costumes), lighting, video, sound and terrifically comic choreography have come together in a triumph for the Sydney Theatre Company – acknowledgements below.  If there have been concerns about the tendency of the major performing arts companies to favour the ‘classics’ rather than put new Australian writing on stage, STC has broken the mould with How to Rule the World.  This is a classic.

But Nakkiah Lui fits neatly into her other tradition as well, beginning with the classic storytelling, of the shape-changing characters, going back over the tens of thousands of years of her Australian Aboriginal culture.  We saw these in Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, the recent exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, created by the Mardi and many other peoples from Western Australia, from a base in Roebourne.  It’s a long way from Sydney, but make a visit to see the local women artists at work there, as I have, and you’ll begin to see the connections.

How to Rule the World satirises not only the inequities, subterfuge and hypocrisy of our European political system which cartoonists from James Gillray in 18th Century England to our David Pope in today’s centre of government, Canberra, have pilloried and exposed; but Lui also does what a satirist must – laugh at her own culture.  And so, in her play, Lui shows her recognition of the same lack of ethics and breakdown of political unity among her three who seek to game the parliamentary system, and by implication shows that politics in any human society, including her own, is prey to the desire for achievement at any price.

The final speech of the play – given by Vic, magically appearing out of custody – seeking Treaty, to complete unfinished business, is no longer funny, not just a criticism of ‘white’ rule, but tinged with sadness for everyone’s failure…so far, at least.