Left – Sam O'Sullivan and Nakkiah Lui. Cover – Lasarus Ratuere and Katie Beckett. Photos – Brett Boardman
Nakkiah Lui's Kill The Messenger is not really a play at all, in the generally accepted sense of the word – something she freely admits, because plays are supposed to provide answers, and, as she notes, there are no answers here. What it offers is a remarkable kind of theatricalised truth: it is open, honest, confessional, plain.
I don't want to use the words “raw” or “authentic” here, because they've been used so often about Lui's work that we’ve now reached a kind of semantic satiation (and who am I to judge the authenticity of her writing?). I can understand the impulse to use them as descriptors, though. Kill The Messenger is meta-theatre about futility, and this requires a kind of radical openness that we rarely see on stage. On top of this, it feels like the play is constantly, almost desperately trying to be more open, more revealing – as if revealing more, peeling back more layers, will finally uncover the reason for the show's tragedies.
I don't normally enjoy meta-theatre, and this is about as meta as it gets. Author Nakkiah Lui plays a character named Nakkiah in a show about events that really happened (which revolve around the horribly avoidable deaths of a young man and Nakkiah's grandmother). But the reason I don't like meta-theatre is because it so often feels like an artificial conceit, and this is not the case here. While her monologues might occasionally be a little heavy-handed, Nakkiah is the lynchpin that holds the play together, and her particular meta-theatrical voice is vital and organic.
This is because this play is a scream. This play is full of rage, rage against things which should have been prevented, but which weren't, because of addiction and pain and institutionalised racism and the breezy voices on the phone of people called things like Rita and Tom. I remember Lui describing her last play, This Heaven, like a Molotov cocktail, and there is something of that explosive quality about this play too, although it’s very different in nature. Usually, intensely autobiographical, semi-confessional narratives like this have an apparent therapeutic and/or cathartic quality to them. There is some of that here, in that one of the chief functions of its meta-theatrical structure is a search of meaning – I was reminded of James Olney’s work on autobiography, where he writes it functions to “[transform] the mere fact of existence into a realised quality and a possible meaning.” But more importantly than this, Kill The Messenger tells its stories in a demand to be listened to – and Lui's is a voice we certainly need to be hearing.
This is a compelling, taut, provocative piece of theatre. The decision to cast playwright Lui in the role of her own textual avatar was brilliant, and adds another layer to the piece's intense honesty. It is theatre filled with anger about not being listened to – and while, in some senses, our listening comes too late, I am glad we have the opportunity to listen now.
Kill the Messenger
by Nakkiah Lui
Director Anthea Williams
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre | 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 14 February – 8 March 2015
Tickets: Full from $72 | Concession $49
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 | belvoir.com.au