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