HOW TO RULE THE WORLD
HOW TO RULE THE WORLD, Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 15 February-30 March 2019. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - Nakkiah Lui, Hamish Michael, Gareth Davies, Vanessa Downing, Michelle Lim Davidson; below - Rhys Muldoon; below again - Hamish Michael, Rhys Muldoon, Gareth Davies
Nakkiah Lui is a rare artist in Australian drama: young, black and female and not even slightly hesitant about saying what she wants to say. And what she wants to say has been extremely effective. Notably, in theatre, Kill the Messenger (2015), Black is the New White (2017) and Blackie Blackie Brown (2018). What she’s saying in 2019, is how poisonously inert is white male power and politics. And she says it in a way that makes it impossible not to laugh one minute and squirm the next.
So...three non-white Australian political operatives are at large in the corridors of influence. (Successful transformation by set designer Marg Horwell and lighting and AV designer Emma Valente of the Drama Theatre stage into Parliament House.) However, instead of being able to savour the thrill, the three have realised they have less power than a 25w light globe.
Their immediate problem is a new law. The federal government is about to pass its Sovereign Territory Bill. It’s all about further entrenching those “Australian values” that erected white picket fences in the 1950s – on the wrong side of which all the tinted folk and the uppity (women and queers) were corralled.
Aboriginal Vic (Lui) is frantic to stop the Bill and even keener to have Treaty take its place. How this will ever happen is beyond imagining. She and Tongan Chris (Anthony Taufa) and Korean Zaza (Michelle Lim Davidson) go clubbing one night to dance, drink and snort away their frustration (composer and sound design; Paul Mac and Steve Francis.)
Fuelled by a lot of expensive white powder, Vic has an idea. The trio will find a puppet, get him into the Senate, pull his strings and thus tie up the balance of power. And how better to find a suitable candidate than to audition out-of-work actors.
The general audition is hilarious as Vanessa Downing and Gareth Davies make balletic use of a door and dizzying quick changes to try out for the role. None are quite right, some are just wrong; then Lewis Lewis (Hamish Michael) turns up in jelly sandals, cargoes and long swoofy hair.
Michael is a 21st century Harold Lloyd: he has no discernible vanity and is a master of deadpan, unselfconscious and subtle comedy. His transformation from hairy-legged ninny with actorly principles, to Senator Tommy Ryan – slogan-spouting suit without a scruple to scratch himself with – is priceless.
What is also sharply comical is how the grim truths of our cheating, lying, racist, corrupt systems of government are exposed as expectations are turned inside out, upside down and every which way but decent. The PM (Rhys Muldoon at his most disingenuously suave) is a series of mouthy cliches and practised grins and all too familiar. His various hangers-on and minders (more splendid Downing and Davies) are equally ghastly and all the time, Lui is toying with our received perceptions of politics today.
What goes on between the PM and Tommy Ryan and their various manipulators would once upon a time have made your hair curl. Today it’s the norm – and almost impossible to exaggerate. Director Paige Rattray and choreographer Kurt Phelan make the most of fine actors and the space afforded by the clear stage to orchestrate some delicious moments of wicked satire with Tommy at the forefront. His work-in-progress slogan, for instance, is all about Trying to have a Try, which echoes Scott Morrison’s: “If you have a go, you will get a go. There is a fair go for those who have a go.”
You can’t make up stuff like that. In the play, as in real life then, politicians are exposed in all their vacuous ambition and disregard for the electorate. And ironically, there is an element of disregard for – or mistrust in – the audience. Contrary to pollie belief, much of the electorate is not stupid, and when it comes to How To Rule The World, most of the audience is also reasonably smart.
So Lui the playwright needs to trust her audience to get her serious intent and not underline it and repeat it several times over. Persistently whacking the audience with a simplistic big stick labelled “Treaty” will not achieve better understanding. There’s no one credited in the program as Dramaturg and this one needs that cool eye and calm hand on the blue pencil. Huge potential is there but at times it’s all but obscured.
On opening night the show ran almost three hours, including interval and several endings. It could be a sparkling two hours straight through – and one dynamic twisting ending. (Vic’s startling monologue, for instance.) At the moment, for whatever reason, it’s not in the same theatrical league as Black Is The New White – and it could be. Nevertheless, the potential shines and Nakkiah Lui is a fabulous talent. Recommended.