Saturday, July 20, 2019

Things I Know To Be True

Phot by Heidrun Lohr

Belvoir presents, THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, by Andrew Bovell, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 8th June - 21st July.

THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, has gathered a critical and word-of-mouth reputation. Such, that I was urged to see the play. I did last Friday night. Afterwards, I was just kind of angry, angry that such a great piece of writing had been so bowdlerised in production.

Andrew Bovell's play, for me, Australia's leading playwright, is a wonderfully perceptive and astringent overview of the Australian Family and the different readings a six unit family have in practising and understanding what Love is within the spread and influence of relentless Time. Dad, Bob (Tony Martin) and mum, Fran (Helen Thomson) and their four grown children, Pip (Anna Lise Phillips), Mark (Tom Hobbs), Ben (Matt Levett) and the youngest, Rosie (Miranda Daughtry, talk directly to us, in monologue form between abreacted episodes that cover the passing of a year, indicated visually for us by the passing of the seasons, in the presence of the family pride, Bob's backyard roses. Those Pink roses, on the side of a green painted, cracked concrete backyard.

Watching (reading) the play the epic dimension of THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, shone through and resonated, in my imagination, with the observed power, of the great Russian family sagas: for instance, especially, Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA, Dostoyevsky's THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Chekhov's THREE SISTERS.

The famous first line from Tolstoy's novel: "All families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" ricochets around my memory often during the performance of Mr Bovell's play. In ANNA KARENINA, the Oblonsky family, the Levin family, and the Karenin's career through the time structure of the novel, the toy of the frailties of human needs that manifest in unexpected ways and create dramatic and comic trajectories of a gathering profundity of experience for one and all. None of what happens, necessarily, is what any one of them expected, but is what was fated, as they pursued their idea of happiness. So, is the scenario of Mr Bovell's play.

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Dostoyevsky's last novel, reveals at length the family struggles between Father (Fyodor), his sons, Dimitri, Ivan, Alexi and their partners. Says Ivan:
So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course, ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it.
So, is the scenario of Mr Bovell's play.

In Chekhov's masterpiece, THREE SISTERS, shaped by the influence of a life lived and forensically observed, alongside thinkers - philosophers - such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the family Prozorov: Olga, Masha, Andrey and Irina, struggle through three years or more of their lives in the quest for happiness, idealised in the desire to return to Moscow, away from the exile in the boondocks of the Urals. We are told by Masha, the eldest of the surviving family:
The music is playing so cheerfully, so proudly, you feel you want to live! Oh, God! Time will pass and we'll be gone forever, we'll be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, how many of us there were, but our suffering will turn into joy for those who come after us, happiness and peace will come to the earth, and we who live now will be remembered with a kind word and a blessing. Oh, my darling sisters, our lives are not over yet. We will live! The music is playing so cheerfully, with so much joy and it seems in just a little while we will know why we are living, why we are suffering .., if only we knew, if only we knew! (It doesn't matter! It doesn't matter!) If only we knew, if only we knew!
So, is the scenario in Mr Bovell's play.

Andrew Bovell in his THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, builds from his other theatrical writings (e.g.SPEAKING IN TONGUES (1998), WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING (2008)), a uniquely brilliant Australian contemporary context for a similar literary focusing on the building blocks of our civilisation: Family, Love and Time, in the Aussie backyard!

This is a provocatively, timely, play.

It is a pity then, that Director Neil Armfield lacks the courage to reveal the play's philosophical confrontations for the Australian audience face on but instead dumbs down the serious aspects of Mr Bovell's look at how Australians survive their family 'tragedies' of living. Where Bovell writes comedy of a Chekhovian kind in THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, Armfield conjures caricatured farce, permitting Ms Thomson, especially (it is her usual caricatured comic-revue performance), and the other actors - some more than less -  to unleash their formidable comic techniques to obfuscate the deep wounds and the consequences of them on the family's history of interaction. And, when there is serious issue of life changing events, such as the confession of Mark desiring a gender reassignment or Ben's criminal embezzling, we witness a kind of high scale soapie-melodrama. So, when intransigent tragedy strikes one of the persons of the play, we are delivered a syrupy dose of indulgent sentimentality from Rosie. Caricatured farce, melodrama and sentimentality.

Every issue of cultural importance written into this play by Mr Bovell, to facilitate our ability to confront with true maturity the realistic blemishes of what it is to be human in the modern world, Mr Armfield, has guided his actors to reduce it all to banal triviality, permitting the audience to ignore it as suffering and brush it off as merely amusing and or sad, allowing a shallow warmly comforting contemplation. There is no striving or offering for any manner of in-depth engagement with the cultural challenges revealed. It is an Old School, out-of-date Aussie Directorial aesthetic that deflects serious examination for popular entertainment. It steers us away from difficult contemplation. This Directorial conceit belongs to a by-gone era. This Director will not point us to employ close scrutiny, to confront the realities of our lives. He seems to wish us to sustain a warm by-gone fantasy, to allow us to continue to bathe in a romantic delusion of living in the 'lucky country'.

The response of the audience I sat with was predictably beguiled into the comfortable raptures of this far-flung antipodal world, demonstrating for me, the willingness of our performance art culture to lead our audiences to a delusional myopia to the realities of what is happening in our world, what life demands of us - how else, I asked myself, could one understand the politics of our day and the lies we swallow for comfort's sake.

Mr Armfield's gestures mirrors a commercial wrapping that pervades the programming sensibilities of our theatrical gate keepers, starkly instanced even in the recent selection of the Sydney Film Festival 2019 opening film, where they scheduled the soft and bourgeois PALM BEACH, with its set of social dramas amusingly confronted, to be ultimately, blithely giggled away, played by the familiar old gals and boys of our unreal film world, rather than with the exposure to a part of Australia's history that is a thing known to be true but is ignored or hidden in a more important film, shown in the same Festival, such as Jennifer Kent's THE NIGHTINGALE or Mirrah Foulkes' JUDY AND PUNCH. Both these films with a subject narrative and characters too hard for an Opening Night audience at an Australian Film Festival?


Anna Lise Phillips as Pip, the 'Nora' figure fleeing her marriage and children comes nearest to showing us a situation of a thing we know to be true as she digs down as best she can, despite the lack of honest contemplated support from her surrounding actors, into a raw experience of pain and guilt whilst also finding the courage to embrace, for Pip, the possible joy of escape to Canada. Painful human ambiguity.

Tom Hobbs, given the difficult character of Mark who needs to be Mia doesn't convince us of the pain and reality of the social and psychological contemporary dilemma of the choice she has made - the toll of living in the 'judgemental'  environment of most of our culture for all of her life so far. There is a baulking in his physical realisations of both Mark and, especially, Mia and an adoption of melodramatic gesture in the emotional requirements of the character and story, which are aided and abetted by Ms Thomson and Mr Martin in their characters' response of relative hysteria. I felt uncomfortable with the lack of truths that I know of in this section of the play.

Matt Levet, too, seems to lack complete conviction of technique to deliver on stage Ben's nefarious and drug-addled alpha truth. While Miranda Daughtry makes theatrical choices almost on every occasion rather than contemplated and engaged truth based revelation, withdrawing from any self-knowledge to create Rosie. We, rather, see an awkward actor at work to a conscious affect, than that of a life existing in front of our eyes.

All these actors chosen and giving performances under the Direction Of Mr Armfield.

The use of the rose bushes as a metaphor for the action of the play and arc for Bob's story, Designed by Steven Curtis, is blatant and horribly boring in the climatic moments in the destruction of the garden, where the theatricality of pretend rose bushes overrides any essence of truth to be believed as, especially, Mr Martin, appears to be truly, emotionally, 'running on empty' to be believed.

There is in this production of this play not enough truths that I recognised to be true. Artifice rather than Art. I was extremely disappointed (and, did I mention, angry?) Admire the play, loathe the Direction.

P.S. I yearned, during the night, to see the family sagas of Sean O'Casey, JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1924), or THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS (1926). Edwardo de Fillipo's SATURDAY, SUNDAY AND MONDAY(1959.  How about Jez Butterworth's recent, THE FERRYMAN (2017)?

THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE has a cast of only six actors - illustrating, further, the 'genius' of Mr Bovell, in the dramaturgical density of theme and truth he manages to reveal with such limited assets. All of the examples I have instanced in my yearnings have casts of an unfashionable size. So, not likely to be curated. Although, Belvoir did buck its usual 'method' with their early year production of COUNTING AND CRACKING. More of that, please!


KG said...

Hi Kevin. Yes I, too, found this production very old fashioned. It - in many ways - is/was a revelation ...

That Guy said...

Having seen the orignal STCSA/Frantic Assembly production, I wasn't quite willing to take the trip to Sydney to see a different production (while I'm all in favour of more Australian plays getting that necessary second production, the performances of the original, in particular the brilliant Paul Blackwell as the dad, just weren't things that I could replace easily in my mind). I'm sorry that this flattened a great play into mere melodrama.

Suffring said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Kevin. What I saw as being great in this performance was the script and not the production. Watching actors who have been trained so well you see their decisions and not their life. It must have been very uncomfortable for one in particular that they had to reduce everything to comedy.