Andrew Bovell, one of Australia’s most celebrated stage and screen writers, Scott Graham, director of one of the world’s most renowned physical theatre companies, State Theatre Company of South Australia artistic director Geordie Brookman, a designer and a cast of professional actors walk into a rehearsal room …
It sounds like the start of a joke. It is, really.
Things I Know To Be True is the most significant piece of theatre in Adelaide this year, a show already booked to play in London and across the United Kingdom. It will rank among our least valuable exports. After three years in the thinking, and 18 months in the making, what has emerged is an upholstered melodrama defectively conceived and executed, and artistically vapid. I don’t say that lightly, given the talent involved and the ambition of the piece.
So what went wrong?
Bovell’s work is always of high anticipation. His word-perfect adaptation of The Secret River, which toured Australia earlier this year, is the landmark Australian theatrical work of the decade. His script for John Le Carre’s novel A Most Wanted Man was a smart thriller that won over Hollywood. Speaking In Tongues/Lantana remain at the high water mark of Australian stage and screen. When The Rain Stops Falling won awards in New York. One of his first plays, After Dinner, was revived in Sydney last year to positive notices.
The sweeping scope we’ve come to expect from Bovell — the cross-generational Rain, the knotted Tongues — has been suffocated in Things I Know To Be True. Perhaps through the compromise of committee, if we’re to offer the benefit of the doubt. It’s a small world with oversized emotions. Manipulative and yet impotent.
It starts intriguingly enough: a ringing phone, a man (Paul Blackwell) seemingly suspended in the dark, a dad fearing the worst from a late-night call. His body withers under the weight of dread. We meet Rosie (a lovely and prevailing Tilda Cobham-Hervey), lost and heartbroken in Europe. Her poignant monologue resonates with the loneliness of the moment. Hands wrap around her body and propel her into the air, conveying the chaos of strange places and the longing for home and family.
It might be the only time the languid movement injected into the piece by Graham, an Olivier and Tony nominated artist with the renowned UK-based Frantic Assembly, ever really adds value. And the only time we feel anything for this rotten family and their litany of issue-of-the-moment problems.
The older sister (Georgia Adamson) is abandoning her kids and running away to a lover. One brother (Nathan O’Keefe) is embezzling from his company, the other (Tim Walter) wants to be a woman. Dad, feeble and befuddled, mostly plays good cop while mum (Eugenia Fragos, partner of Bovell, as if in a show all her own) viperously spits at their selfishness. Poor Rosie, who just wanted the embrace of family life in Adelaide on returning home but finds what she knows to be true isn’t so clear after all (get it?).
Bovell likes to write in fragments. But in Rain, in Tongues, the canvases were big enough, there was enough connective tissue, to say something about the human orbit. Here, only the stage is big — the broad space of the Dunstan Playhouse is dimly lit and sparsely decorated by designer Geoff Cobham, but the characters get lost in the many shadows. A more intimate theatre might have helped. Acting of any nuance certainly would have made this a less obnoxious experience, a lack of restraint not one but two directors failed to rein in.
But ultimately Bovell as writer must take the blame. It’s like every actor in the workshop had their own ideas and he was happy to jimmy them in. He writes in the program of the experience:
“Stories are told. Moments are built upon moments. A phrase of improvised dialogue opens out to a whole scene in my head. A physical gesture suggests the world of a character. We laugh. We play. We argue. A thousand plays are discovered. My job is to discover the one that needs to be told.”
Except he didn’t. I know, with all my heart, that to be true.