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Review: How to Rule the World

Nakkiah Lui's new play is an incisive satire of the Australian zeitgeist

The cast of How to Rule the World assembled on stage Image credit: Sydney Theatre Company

In a world of revolving door Prime Ministers, parodical Presidents and a broadly performative and theatrical political culture where millenials obsess over looking woke, producing good theatre about politics proves to be a difficult task. Yet, How to Rule the World manages to intelligently satirise the Australian zeitgeist, without much of the corniness which pervades contemporary comedy. Written by young Gamilaroi and Torres Strait Islander playwright Nakkiah Lui (Black is the New White) and directed by the Sydney Theatre Company’s Paige Rattray, the play staged at the Sydney Opera House is performed in two parts, and follows the schemes of three young Australians on a quest for political power.

Vic (Nakkiah Lui), Chris (Anthony Taufa) and Zaza (Michelle Lim Davidson) play a First Nations journalist, a Tongan political advisor and a Korean pro-bono lawyer, who, during a coke induced night out, decide to change politics from within. By running a puppet candidate in the form of an inoffensive white independent for the half Senate election, the three hatch a plan to hold the balance of power and defeat the racist “Sovereign Territory Bill.” The team then decide to hold casting auditions for “the perfect white man”, eventually deciding on Lewis Lewis, who they transform into Tommy Ryan (Hamish Michael).

But, as the well intentioned trio embark on a journey to dismantle the structures that have oppressed them and other minorities, they sacrifice their morals and turn against each other. Oppressed becomes oppressor, friend becomes foe and their unthinking puppet candidate develops a brain of his own.

How to Rule the World leaves no one unscathed, and whilst the jabs at conservative politicians are sound, it’s the critique of the self styled progressives which hit the hardest. Whether it’s the private school educated Labor candidate who can’t change a tyre singing a rendition of Working Class Man, or the Greens #changethedate candidate who does blackface because an Indigenous person gave them the a-okay.

The motley crew of the three main characters share a definite chemistry on stage. Anthony Taufa and Michelle Lim Davidson fill their roles well as Chris and Zaza. It’s no wonder Lui wrote the play with them in mind. Lui herself gives an excellent performance as she shifts from comedy to serious delivery with flair. This is perhaps realised best when she moves from a juvenile joke about poo to a serious monologue on intergenerational trauma and the realities of being black in this country.

Hamish Michael is outstanding as Tommy Ryan, nailing both the clichéd speeches and his nefarious turn to the Canberra bubble, and Rhys Muldoon plays a great masculine “call me mate” Prime Minister (remind you of anyone?).

The setting and props are simple yet effective, with depth and lighting used particularly well to transform the large stage from Parliament, to nightclub, to funeral.

Whilst the play could have done with a bit more fine tuning, notably in the second half where a couple of moments feel too stretched out, one imagines if there were a few more days of previews that this would have been easily realised and remedied.

Overall, the play operates most successfully as a political satire, not just because it critiques, but because it challenges us to think deeply about Australia’s political reality. Cities keep breaking temperature records and towns with rivers have no clean water to drink. All the children in detention in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal and the Federal Government has plans to reopen Christmas Island. Will more inoffensive white independents in Parliament really save us?

How to Rule the World is running until 30 March.