In several recent interviews playwright Nakkiah Lui has highlighted the challenge of writing satire in a country where the political reality is barely to be believed. As if to prove her point, her latest play for Sydney Theatre Company, How to Rule the World, opened after a first parliamentary sitting week that has already seen a broken record for the longest Question Time in the nation’s history and a senator admitting to smearing blood on another senator’s door.
Following the success of her hit family comedy Black is the New White and last year’s ferocious superhero comedy Blackie Blackie Brown – both of which have gone on to play around the country – How to Rule the World, directed by Paige Rattray, takes a swing at Australian political life in a wildly funny satire that out-Canberras Canberra.
Michelle Lim Davidson, Anthony Taufa and Nakkiah Lui in Sydney Theatre Company’s How to Rule the World. Photo © Prudence Upton
Three young, frustrated politicos – Vic (played by Lui herself), an Aboriginal woman, Zaza (Michelle Lim Davidson), an Asian woman, and Chris (Anthony Taufa), an Islander man – hatch a scheme to change the face of Australian politics by recruiting a white actor (Hamish Michael) to be their political puppet. Their plan? To run their candidate as an independent in hope of holding the balance of power in the Senate and blocking the passage of the Prime Minister (Rhys Muldoon)’s ultra-nationalist, anti-immigration Sovereign Territory bill. But what are they willing to compromise to make their plan a success? And what happens when their puppet takes on a life of his own?
This is a laugh-a-minute play with strong performances from Lui, Davidson and Taufa, who – on a simple set by Marg Horwell, inspired by the corridors of Parliament House – tell their story to the audience in a series of flashbacks, giving the play a direct, skit-like energy. It’s a play driven by dialogue, full of Canberra in-jokes, slogans, up-to-the-moment references and political rhetoric cribbed from pop songs – but also incisive commentary on race, intersectionality and the way power is portrayed, held and wielded in this country. Music and dancing create a party atmosphere and provide lightness where needed.
Rhys Muldoon and Hamish Michael in Sydney Theatre Company’s How to Rule the World. Photo © Prudence Upton
The actors deliver all this with panache, Vanessa Downing and Gareth Davies filling out the ensemble in a string of roles from Downing’s mysterious Preference Whisperer, to Davies’ drug-dealer (and insufferable devil’s advocate) and series of auditioning actors. Hamish Michael charts a compelling course from out of work actor Lewis Lewis to slick political operator Tommy Ryan (with the help of some brilliant scenes involving vocal coaching and power stances), while Rhys Muldoon is suitably villainous as the Prime Minister. Lui wrote the roles of Chris and Zaza specifically with her co-stars in mind: Taufa delivers some delightful moments as Chris, while Davidson infuses a subtle slip of her smile with enough pathos to fill the whole theatre.
Rattray, who worked with Lui on Black is the New White, keeps the pace up, while Emma Valente’s lighting allows for sharp transitions between locations, past and present, without ever leaving the Canberra corridor. There’s no shortage of laughter, but some judicious trimming may help to drive the play’s momentum – the second act’s confrontation between Tommy and the Prime Minister, for example, feels over long. Tightening some of the longer sequences might also give more focus and impact to key moments, such as a powerful speech by Lui – on hope and the need for a treaty process between the government and Indigenous Australians – that has the hushed audience hanging on her every word.
Vanessa Downing and Gareth Davies in Sydney Theatre Company’s How to Rule the World. Photo © Prudence Upton
How to Rule the World takes aim at a system that is run almost exclusively by older, white men, but Lui doesn’t spare any section of politics, skewering hypocrisy and in-fighting in the various factions of the left just as keenly as she does the right (and there are few politicians who don’t get a serve). While Lui gives us a cynical, outrageous and ridiculous Canberra, given the events of the last few years it might be unbelievable, but not that unbelievable. But ultimately this is a play that offers hope for the future, shining light on the complexities of power and race in Australia but showing us a world that can change – if we work at it.
Sydney Theatre Company’s How to Rule the World is at the Sydney Opera House until March 30