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Sam O’Sullivan, Nakkiah Lui, Kill the Messenger Sam O’Sullivan, Nakkiah Lui, Kill the Messenger
photo Brett Boardman
From the 90s on we rejoiced in remarkable solo stage performances by Aboriginal women—Ningali Lawford (Ningali, co-writers Angela Chaplin, Robyn Archer;1994); Leah Purcell (Box the Pony, co-writer Scott Rankin,1997); Deborah Cheetham (White Baptist Abba Fan, 1997); and Tammy Anderson (I Don’t Wanna Play House, 2001). These works variously recounted tales of dispossession, prejudice, the Stolen Generation, personal trauma and prejudice against which they struggled for personal and collective freedom and the realisation of their ambitions—which these performances in part represented as well as confirming a proud sense of cultural heritage. Their sense of hope was strong. For a writer from a new generation, hope is beset by despair.

Nakkiah Lui, Kill the Messenger

Black walls, black floor, the ultimate black box—a void into which is cast a square of light for solo declarations and combative interactions. This is Indigenous playwright Nakkiah Lui’s Kill the Messenger. It’s short, spare and terse, angry, confessional and funny. It’s self-deprecating. It laughs with and at its primarily white audience. But it’s not hopeful.

In Kill the Messenger, Lui has combined the autobiographical directness of her precursors (not to tell a life story, but a fragment) with vigorous playwriting. She speaks to us directly in monologue and appears as herself, a character in her own play interacting with invented characters in a scenario which speculates about what might have lead to the death of a young Aboriginal drug addict.

Kill the Messenger’s central conceit is that the play is unfinished, because, says Lui, she doesn’t know what it says or if anything can be said in the face of the continuing horrors dealt Indigenous people by Australian society. She struggles with the writing of the play, refusing to allow her characters (an addict, his sister and a white male nurse) much in the way of hope despite the urging of another character, Lui’s onstage white boyfriend.

Directly addressing the audience Lui explains she was motivated to write by hearing that the addict, in severe pain, suicided after being neglected by a hospital that hadn’t detected his advanced cancer. More significant was the death of Lui’s grandmother, who too suffered greatly after falling through a termite-damaged floor, the result of Aboriginal Housing Office maladministration. Lui traces her grandmother’s fate back through a cruel series of dispossessions to the arrival of the First Fleet: “We are always stuck with the mistakes of the past … there is no escaping history and the ways it affects you.” The mistreatment of Aboriginal people is unfinished business, so therefore is the play.

Lui concludes the first of her two monologues by referring to an earlier scene during which she and her lover, amid lovemaking, fractiously sort out their sexual politics while she ignores repeated phone calls. She confides to us, “Maybe I missed my chance to say goodbye [to my grandmother]. I didn’t want to tell you I did that.” She admits to not having the courage to dramatise the grandmother’s life. Instead she creates a series of tense scenes between sister and brother, sister and nurse, brother and Lui (imagining herself meeting him), and Lui and lover.

Although much of the anger of the play is directed at white society, its power resides in the constantly shifting moral ground of the dialogues. Arguments rarely resolve, although the ongoing one between the nurse and the sister comes closest when he faces her with the sheer complexity of the circumstances of her brother’s death. There are further complexities, like the agony felt by the addict at the prospect of having to die in Lui’s scenario.

At the play’s end, we don’t kill the messenger; we know, as she tells us, “…I’m not just the messenger, this is me.” She is the substance of the message. “I wrote this for you…You wanted this. You paid for this. And I’m giving it to you. Now, please. Take it.”

For all the verve of the writing, the excellence of the performances and the clever weaving of self and fiction, Kill the Messenger felt like a play in its early days. It’s not that it’s ‘unfinished.’ It can stand as a work about unfinished business in a form that resonates with its content. What felt unexplored was the nature and the depth of the anger expressed by the sister, Harley (Katie Beckett), and Nakkiah. Beckett and Lui unleash it with an eloquence and power with which their characters frequently block their capacity to listen. Their anger is justified, if sometimes distorting, sometimes briefly quelled, but wielded caustically or with a blunt logic leaving relationships incomplete and creating potentially tragic impasses.

Sadly, the tales of the addict and the grandmother are further tragedies to add to a too long list. For the playwright to step into the picture—“all I have is the truth and this is the most I can give you”—is compelling, but is it enough? We can empathise with loss, but how do we comprehend, and accept, anger directed at us—in our minds as if at some other whites, outside the theatre? Lui says, for having to offer the truth, “I hate you all a little bit for it. That it would come to this.” But she is gentle with us, her confidants, asking us to accept her gift of the truth. Kill the Messenger suggests that, given Nakkiah Lui’s obvious talent, there is some larger dimension or some other play in her that might address the workings of this anger and have us face it fair and square.

Eryn Jean Norvill, Suddenly Last Summer, Sydney Theatre Company Eryn Jean Norvill, Suddenly Last Summer, Sydney Theatre Company
photo Brett Boardman
Tennessee Williams, Suddenly Last Summer

The Drama Theatre proscenium is a vast white screen. A man crosses the forestage and enters it via a hidden door. We glimpse greenery. The screen fills with images of lush plants in immersive high definition filmed by a camera coursing through a garden. For half an hour or so we only see the actors writ large onscreen—pure cinema, if provisionally so. The stage revolves taking us from garden to asylum, the screen rising up behind the now human-scale actors, capturing them in close-ups, intimate pairs (seated in the wings amid theatre machinery), wider shots and heady circlings provided by three cameras and some astute live editing. Images of the tormented Catharine (Eryn Jean Norvill), institutionalised by her aunt, Mrs Venables (Robyn Nevin) for defaming her dead son, are hugely multiplied amplifying a sense of delirium. The inventiveness persists throughout the production although introducing the son on stage in flashback involves awkward doubling and, with an overheated ramping up of effects, reducing the sheer chill of the final revelation.

The mix of stage and screen presences, physically and vocally, in Kip Williams’ finely realised production of Tennessee Williams’ 1958, 90-minute one-act play, is carefully balanced, the actors making the most of the head-miking and camera opportunities for highly nuanced performances. Nevin’s Mrs Venables, living off vanity and denial, simmers with righteous anger. Norville’s delicate, tremulous Catherine reveals, in a performance of great range, just enough strength to suggest she’s a survivor.

Kip Williams overcomes the challenges of Suddenly Last Summer’s calculatedness, surprising us with a fine melding of intense cinematic realism, equally cinematic surrealism and distanciation provided by visible production technology, and actors on a stage.

Belvoir, Kill the Messenger, writer Nakkiah Lui, director Anthea Williams, Belvoir Upstairs, Sydney, 18 Feb-8 March; STC, Suddenly Last Summer, writer Tennessee Williams, director Kip Williams, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 13 Feb-21 March

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 32

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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