Nakkiah Lui is a westie. To make matters worse, for her, she’s Aboriginal. Worse still, she’s a lawyer. Or soon will be.
This Heaven is her first play and she’s, understandably, angry. “This Heaven is my Molotov cocktail; I want to throw it and burn things down,” she says. She has a lot to say about the law, versus justice. Occasionally, perhaps, the two may accidentally coincide. But not too often, if at all, if you happen to be indigenous.
This isn’t mere political correctness, or bleeding heart leftist posturing. Lui comes from the coalface. She’s been there. She was brought up there. She’s lived it every day of her life. Like the young Aboriginal man I knew who was stopped by police, to be questioned about a nearby crime, despite the fact he didn’t in any way match the description given to them. Perhaps they were colour blind. Or perhaps they need to be. The play, she says, “is about the loyalty of a place and how it can destroy you”. Loyalty of a place. Not to a place. A place can adhere to you, it seems, like a monkey clinging to your back. Dragging you back to despair, even as you brace against the wind, trying to make your way toward hope and the future.
The disembodied voice of a reporter (Blazey Best) blares a story, or the kind of story we’ve heard before. An all too familiar story, of deaths in custody. Robert Gordon was a highly-respected member of the community. A pillar. A rock. But on this night, the night in question, he was arrested for, supposedly, driving under the influence and crashing a car into a fence. He was arrested. Now, his heart has. A post mortem examination determined severe trauma. The kind consistent with a severe walloping. The coppers won’t have a bar of it, of course. It was the car accident that was responsible for the injuries sustained. Ah, but there was a witness. Gordon’s son, Ducky (Travis Cardona). Ah, but there’s a problem. Ducky’s blind. His testimony is therefore deemed unreliable.
Like the playwright, Dicky’s mother and sister are angry, too. At first, it’s only Ducky that’s looking like going off the deep end and seeking revenge. But soon, Sissy (Jada Alberts) is rejecting everything she’s worked for to this point and looking towards direct action. She might be a final year law student, but the law has failed her family, despite James (Eden Falk), the solicitor’s, earnest efforts. There’s no compensation. Only the offer of nine-thousand dollars to keep quiet. The long arm of the law has shut up one Gordon. Now it’s looking to shut up the rest.
For Sissy, especially, that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Joan, Ducky and Sissy’s mum, is the voice of reason, pleading with her children not to do anything violent or rash, but her outrage is mounting too, culminating in a confrontation with the officer who knows the most about that fateful night (Josh Anderson). After all, Joan has worked for the force for well over a decade. And her reward is a litany of lies, a culture of collusion and a husband in a bodybag. There were times when that young officer and his mates ate damper, with golden syrup, made by Robert. But this sweetness has, ironically, left his family with a bitter taste that will probably never leave them.
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The entire cast is right on the money. While Alberts character is the leading voice, Cardona’s loyal, indignant, fearless Ducky, at once vulnerable and vengeful, is a meticulously realised balancing act. Rose’s Joan is a nimble dance of conflicting emotion: the searing pain of the bereaved wife; the injured spirit of the loyal employee and colleague; the nurturing counsel of the concerned mother. Falk’s James is a crafty calibration of a man beset and torn by principles and pragmatism. Anderson’s Ryan is sophisticated on page and stage, insofar as not being entirely demonised: there’s even a little love left for him.
Director Lee Lewis is surely emerging as one of Australian theatre’s best and most versatile ever: just look at, say The School For Wives and, now, this. Poles, worlds, apart. And yet she’s efficacious in both instances. Here, she shows she knows. She knows when to sit back, When less is more. When to punctuate silence, and darkness, with a bullet. When to listen to the writer. When to listen to her instinct. When to listen to her actors. When to listen to her heart. And when to intervene. That’s how it looks, anyway.
While there’s a certain unrelentingly polemic quality evident in Lui’s writing at times, the structure of the work, its arc, the complexities and contradictions of the characters, are all very real, very believable. The hardness and coldness of the play’s only real set, or prop, in the form of a backyard swing set, is an astute jumping-off point. The bars and chains evoke symbols and feelings of oppression, imprisonment, confinement, violence and emptiness.
Sophie Fletcher and Alice Babidge are to be hailed for their design. Similarly, Luiz Pampolha’s lighting is brave. Thee are harsh, interrogative spotlights and, at one point, total, terrifying, pitch blackness. Out of this rings a deafening gunshot. If sound designer, Nate Edmondson. is trying to shock us, he succeeds. But I’m sure my palpitations will subside soon.
This Heaven couldn’t be more ironic. It allows us to enter and glimpse hell. For some of us, of course, it’s a case of “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”. It’s that “loyalty of place”. And how it can destroy you.
The details: This Heaven plays Belvoir St’s Downstairs Theatre until March 10. Tickets on the company website.