Things I know to be True – Family and the self. (Theatre Review)

Things I know to be True

8 June – 21 July. Belvoir Theatre

You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Heidrun Lohr

A bildungsroman primarily told from the protagonist’s perspective and then the writers, Things I know to be True holds at its core a promise and a warning: one of the essential nature of realism and one of the preposterous nature of realism. We watch Rosie (Miranda Daughtry) seeking the experience which will form her – the essential component of the bildungsroman – such that she will know she embodies an essential humanity, an organic plasticity that permits a kind of absorption of the world in order to successfully produce and re produce herself. Her first touch of a lost love drives her, fearfully back to the arms of her parents, where she will experience more pain and anguish which will combine to see her fully realized, autonomised and on a literal journey to fulfil her own life. In this way Rosie exemplifies the dichotomy of maturation from aesthetic synthesis that in turn threatens to disappear into sheer illusion. At the start of Things I know to be True, Rosie is too referential and not referential enough. She grapples with her individual Real being nothing more than a reflection of the experiences in the world around her, and those experiences include a complex examination of her familial life falling apart. In a crucial speech from her sibling Mia (Tom Hobbs) who exhorts her to stop idolizing her family, Rosie begins to understand the relationships between idolatry and loss of self. It is when she sees the pain her family live inside, perpetuate and inflict, that she is able to find herself, her voice and the things she knows to be true.

For writer Andrew Bovell, the lofty ideals of Goethe’s bildungsroman (that formative grand narrative that is housed in the ‘literary absolute’) are located entirely in the suburban Adelaide backyard. Here the grandest of narratives play out over the top of the lives of Bob Price (Tony Martin) and his wife Fran Price (Helen Thompson). No Mrs. Havisham’s or dashing Mr.Rochester’s to rescue from the mundane, Andrew Bovell takes it all low fi and works within his character Rosie to explore the the notion of language as formative structure or building of the spirit. By loving her family so much, Rosie mirrors and prefigures her own fulfilment. Her identity must be formed through identification with an example: a model which is on the one hand a true version of the identity to be formed but on the other hand is separated by the fact that this identity is as yet not properly formed. Therefore Rosie’s (and the implication by Andrew Bovell is that this is true for all of us) trajectory runs on the double bind of identification: she must identify with her family to become what she already is, however she must not identify with her family in order to become a subject herself. This process we clumsily call ‘separation’ but ultimately it is the process of actualization that alows us to see and unsee our family at precisely the same time that offers so much food for thought for so many writers.

Sydney-siders have waited quite a while for the celebrated play Things I Know To be True, and this production at Belvoir will not disappoint. On a simple Stephen Curtis set, director Neil Armfield works through the performances, to bring the enormity of a universe into this small Australian backyard. A particular scene in a rainstorm is endearingly splendid and powerfully evokes the sense of cleanliness post rainstorm that never fails to delight the senses. Add to this, the purging nature of human connection becomes an enduring front runner in the relationship the characters have to their own emerging and enduring Real. Andrew Bovell often works with a combination of overt symbolism (roses, Rosie, stop and smell the roses) while using them to mask stronger commentaries which Neil Armfield appears to grasp intuitively. The question of what it is to be born and grow, and how do circumstances and people form and un-form us is always prevalent despite the understated nature of the writing on this topic inside the narrative.

Lighting by Damien Cooper calls forth seasons and times of day using strong ‘backyard’ lighting, again moving toward a fashion of realism that posits itself beautifully against the original music composed by Alan John and the by now famous Leonard Cohen influence. The idea of a world inside a backyard is successfully called forth, and we are gifted an eye-full of the familiar while we trespass on this family going through some of their toughest times.

Neil Armfiled correctly intuits the importance of Andrew Bovell’s parents and centers them in most scenes. As the foundation stones of the bildungsroman experience, the siblings have almost no relationships with each other, instead becoming out of their connection to the parents as authority figures. Through the characters Fran and Bob relational personality traits are developed and connections both DNA and nurture inspired forge tendrils that impose problems and solutions on the children. These two performances from Helen Thompson and Tony Martin respectively become a lynch pin around which Neil Armfield forms his other characterisations and the result is a revealing connection between the process of parenting and the effect of starting out on our own. Of particular note is the well revealed similarity between Helen Thompson as Fran and her daughter Anna Lise Phillips as Pip. The women look alike, and all parents know about the frustration that occurs when children remember (and emulate) your moment of secret shame rather than your years of lecturing good intentions. Equally the work of Miranda Daughtry, Tom Hobbs and Matt Levett are strong and showcase the uncanny connections those who grow together manage to share.

This production of Things I know to be True is currently playing at The Belvoir theatre in Sydney. For Andrew Bovell fans, this is a sure production that will not disappoint. For those fascinated by coming-of-age tales and family relationships, this is a production that will haunt you for a long time.