Nakkiah Lui’s ‘How To Rule The World’, a colonial perspective

I am a white (if not straight) man. And I didn’t much like Nakkiah Lui’s blunt, irregularly funny new Sydney Theatre Company play How To Rule The World.

My cultural confession is Lui’s idea, one I’m happy enough to make. As she writes on Twitter: “My gender and racial identity are mentioned in every review, but the critic never mentions theirs. I think that would make a huge difference to me as a reader.”

Perhaps. Certainly, her argument – that obscuring the responder’s identity means “the dynamics and power structures of art don’t change” – is a powerful one and demands consideration by anyone who responds to art in a public space. I could hardly review her piece now without grappling with it.

I come from a different school. White, yes, but also journalism, where the job is to stand apart from your own identity – however futile that may be – and respond in an impartial voice.

Now, some argue – some in journalism even – that impartiality is an old-fashioned idea. But I’m not ready to give up on it. Not in an age where trust in media is eroding to the point of real national emergency, where the ghettoisation of information constantly blurs the lines between fact and fiction. You strive for neutrality knowing you’ll fail as an absolute but still get closer to a reliable account than the one filtered through a prism of identity and prejudice. I truly believe the endeavour is still one worth pursuing.

Criticism works a little differently, of course. It demands personal judgement, obviously, and is an inevitably emotional response as much as an intellectual one, more susceptible to our personal identity politics. And yet I wince sometimes at the inclusion of “I” in responses. I think there’s value in me reckoning with a piece simply as someone who knows a bit about theatre and has seen quite a bit of it, considering how different groups may respond. No more value than anyone else, but no less.

Which is not to deny the privilege of having this modest platform to spout off. And the education to articulate thoughts and consider cultural context. And the relative wealth to have seen some of the theatre that reckoned with issues of structural oppression and broken politics better than Lui does here, including some of her previous work. And the threat I feel, perhaps, on some level, that my voice won’t forever be the prevailing one.

What Lui asks for, quite rightly, is more plurality in response. There is, demonstrably, not enough of it. Yes, the power of publication lies, in theory, in everyone, but the same (white) voices are, as she rightly notes, the ones elevated. That’s an endlessly frustrating space for a young Indigenous woman to put art into, no doubt.

Where I have responded to art that deals with my particular cultural background (that is, most of it), identity (plenty of it) and cultural and personal prejudices, I endeavour to widen my aperture and consider how others may be alienated. I’ve done this haphazardly, no doubt. I’ve also, no doubt, been kinder to work that appealed to me personally than its true artistic merit justified.

I suppose, I agree with everything Lui says. As long as there is room for genuine criticism, not simply echoed boosterism.

At The Guardian, academic and Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman Larissa Behrendt smartly (and positively) reviews How To Rule The World from her perspective. It’s a welcome voice. More relevant, maybe; more biased, perhaps. Readers can judge for themselves. Though the reality is most won’t read anything, let alone multiple pieces. Making it even more important that people of diverse backgrounds are given the opportunity, experience and platforms with mainstream reach to critique and debate every day. Not just on culturally relevant work.

Which is to say, I suppose, I agree with everything Lui says. As long as there is room for genuine criticism, not simply echoed boosterism. Even from chumps like me.

I think Lui’s play fails because it doesn’t land enough of its gags. There’s a familiar, tired lazy-left-Twitter scroll to the material. But more than that, I think it fails because its play on identity doesn’t really give anyone any. My criticism is not the specificity but the lack of it.

Lui stars as “an Aboriginal”, alongside Anthony Taufa (“an Islander”) and Michelle Lim Davidson (“an Asian”). They have names and vague social and employment backgrounds but are, quite deliberately, ciphers for their race and disadvantage. Nobody seems very real (though Taufa manages to fill out his character a little more than the others), and neither do their motivations. The fourth-wall-breaking self-narration doesn’t help.

Sick of sitting on the political sidelines, they hatch a plan to run a malleable white puppet (a tirelessly gallant Hamish Michael) as a Senate candidate to head off a particularly racist piece of legislation before Parliament and push their own marginalised political agendas.

Two things, predictably, happen. The hapless dupe of a candidate wakes up with his own ideas. And the three millennial puppet masters realise they all want different things. The latter idea – the selfishness of power, the fission of intersectionality – is an interesting one, though the exploration is too messy, awkwardly overlaid with Lui’s (the author? the character?) devotion to the cause of an Aboriginal treaty. A subplot of a conservative MP and the suicide of his secret male lover is handled with particularly little care.

Credit to the supporting cast, particularly Rhys Muldoon who channels just a little of his friend Kevin Rudd as the duplicitous prime minister, and the game Gareth Davies, who quick-changes into various characters, most of them fairly amusing. Marg Horwell’s set is a uncanny replica of the inside of Parliament House, though as the show speeds from location to location it becomes cavernous (much like the actual building) and ineffective.

Lui gives us sketches and speeches, (badly sung) song and dance, a slapstick comedy with some straight-talking plaintiveness that made me dizzy. Director Paige Rattray, who also helmed Lui’s previous hit Black Is The New White, has here failed to reign in Lui’s furious flights of fancy to the detriment of the play and her purpose. And at dangerously close to three hours with interval, you’d really want to enjoy the ride.

I, for whatever it’s worth, did not. But judge me, and the play, for yourself.

How To Rule The World plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 30

Photo by Prudence Upton

12 responses to “Nakkiah Lui’s ‘How To Rule The World’, a colonial perspective

  1. SHE HAS A DREAM…
    This perfect political satire set in the ‘Canberra bubble’ is a cup flowing over with painful exposes of the hypocrisy of all those sucked into the vortex of political expediency. The first few acts are a joy to watch as we swim easily back and forwards, picking up the nuances thrown over the actors’ shoulders like bait from a fishing trawler.
    And then right in the middle of this rollicking derision, up steps the playwright Nakkiah Lui. Not to share our joy or reassure us. No, not speaking as her character Vic. No. She’s come instead, centre stage and with attitude, as the author herself, to deliver one of the greatest monologues ever produced in the Australian theatre. Lui steps forward with studied confidence and proceeds to not just break the Fourth Wall but to actually kick it in the gonads. I’ve changed my mind, it was not just a monologue, it was an utterly direct and honest soliloquy which I will call without having actually read the script THE (NO) HOPE SOLILOQUY, a truth-telling from Lui about what it feels like in this day and age to be an Aboriginal woman who has suffered unforgiveable humiliation, insurmountable pain and the cauterising loss of close relatives and friends, to suicide.
    End scene and the cut and her return as the character Vic, to the rest of this absurdist Canberra reality, makes the contrast between these two worlds even sharper. Lui’s writing is going from strength to strength. So enjoyable to see her sense of humour and satiric wit beaming throughout, enlightening us without any need for didactic dinner party diatribes. Through the soliloquy, Lui demanded our attention and our silence and she got it.
    If that speech could be printed and distributed in schools, our children and grandchildren would have their very own ‘She has a dream’ speech to inspire the new, young way. Politicians, please get out of the way so that ordinary Australians can start listening to Nakkiah Lui and the generations of Aboriginal children and future collaborators who will join her.

  2. I saw HOW TO RULE THE WORLD – sorry to be shouting, 2 weeks ago. As Billy says, we don’t need to have the content rammed into our ears and heads, we are an intelligent audience. Shouting doesn’t make me feel stronger about a treaty, or any other message. The jokes are sometimes flat, sometimes irrelevant, and sometimes just simply cringeworthy. The POOMAN is not a metaphor, he is simply a waste of theatre spacetime. The premise of HTRTW is clever, but it is at least 30 minutes too long. Cut out the crap, both literally and figuratively, and let the message grow like a spiders web. Capture the audience without them seeing, and they will soon realise they are entangled beyond escape. Be brave, re-write it, HTRTW 2.0

  3. Every audience member – and every critic – experiences a creative work differently. That Nakkiah Lui’s play spoke deeply to me may be related to my life experiences that are different to someone else’s. that her work sits within a pantheon of Aboriginal theatre that I have been exposed to since a teenager might be another reason I see it differently to someone not as familiar with the canon of that theatre tradition. The claim that a critic is impartial, that any journalist is unbiased, is a difficult starting point – who can claim to have none?
    For my voice and perspective to be patronised (‘academic’, ‘bias’) in the context of trying to validate someone else’s perspective is not only uncool but, ironically, seems to be an example of the blindness of one’s own assumptions that Nakkiah Lui’s work rails against. Standing apart from one’s identity is a luxury Aboriginal people don’t often get to have. In referring to my review, it was the first label Jason Whittaker put on me. Then ‘academic’. I am also the presenter of Speaking Out on ABC radio, won the Australian Director’s Guild award last year for best direction in a feature documentary and won literary prizes for both my novels so an accomplished storyteller in my own right. I chaired the Bangarra Dance Theatre and am on the board of Sydney Festival and sit on the Major Performing Arts Panel of the Australia Council (the latter two have significant involvement with theatre companies) I have a broad experience in and exposure to storytelling across a range of mediums, including theatre, due to all of this work outside of academia. Why do I need to give a cv to prove that I come to a review with as much integrity as someone else?

  4. As somebody who engaged with Jason on Twitter about this — or as this editorial note has it, became ‘upset’ — I’m disappointed with the Daily Review’s response to readers who felt that the article mischaracterised the nature of Lui’s critique.

    It is not about ‘challenges for critics in maintaining objectivity’. It is about recognising that ‘objectivity’ has always been based in a white male viewpoint that is so prevalent as to be invisible. Making it visible has been the work of feminism, of anti-racism, and of queer theory for decades now — so it’s disingenuous, and unneccesarily personal, to pretend that Lui is asking for exceptional treatment.

    Framing the issue as a ‘worthy debate’ also suggests a power dynamic where everybody’s voice is equally heard, which is the very opposite of the way representation currently works.

    The fact that the Daily Review seems intent on ignoring structural inequalities at play is disheartening. As editors it is your responsibility to at the very least acknowledge that the people taking issue with this article have genuine concerns based on experience and understanding, and not just ‘struck nerves’. Missing the mark from time to time is human. There’s no need to condescend to readers when they want to see you do better.

  5. I haven’t seen How to Rule the World, so I’m commenting on this debate, rather than the accuracy of the review (whatever that means). I take three things as central to the debate: art is healthiest and most engaging when it focuses on the views and experiences of the less powerful; failure is a necessary part of the journey to success, and needs to be embraced for that (a view that more mature cultures than ours are better at accepting); and published criticism is not just about the direct relationship between critic and creator, but ideally becomes part of the conversation between creator and audience. In the world of film and TV I think that it’s at least arguable that a tendency for Australian critics to go easy on Australian productions, in an attempt to support Australian production eventually had the opposite effect. They failed to challenge Australian film-makers to develop their story-telling, and eventually lead to Australian audiences discounting those reviews. The outcome? A catastrophic downturn in Australian support for Australian productions. Finding their views unrepresented in the reviews, audiences voted with their feet. I understand the desire to see at least some reviews reflect the world view of the creators – but be careful what you wish for.

  6. The dubious value of this “review” is encapsulated in the author praising his own “impartiality” in one paragraph and admitting that he has used his power to boost work beyond its worth in another.

    This isn’t a review, but a piece that screams “Won’t someone think of the white man!”

  7. This feels like a textual version of the non-Indigenous bloke standing up in a room full of Indigenous people and … talking about himself. And talking about himself some more.

  8. This seems like a review on Lui as a person, not her work(s). Yes, there is little mention of her work, but it’s only to back up the harsh judgement you’re unleashing on her all because of a tweet and a political way of viewing situations that you don’t necessarily agree with. 2019 is so sad.

  9. Most of Lui’s stuff feels like it was written on autopilot. There’s no real depth or structure to it – it’s like a lazy first draft (but you can say the same thing about most Australian playwrights) written by someone jotting down stuff they’ve read on Twitter.

    She also has the annoying habit of ramming everything (and I mean absolutely everything) home with a sledgehammer. Hint for Australian playwrights – you don’t have to explain everything constantly; just let the audience figure it out.

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