THE PRICE WE PAY: STCSA’S THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE
May 29, 2016
Alone on a Berlin train station, dumped by a boy she thought she loved, nineteen-year-old Rosie Price makes a list. A list of all the things she knows to be true. It surprises her how short the list is. And she knows that she has to go home, sooner rather than later. And this is where our story starts. With a phone call in the middle of the night – every parent’s nightmare – and also every child’s: who’s calling, who needs my help? With a body seemingly suspended in the inky black space of the theatre. With a bleary sleep-croaked ‘Hello?’
Over the course of the play, we meet the Price family (the name is significant, I think) – father Bob, mother Fran, and the (now adult) children Pip, Mark, Ben, and Rosie – who live on a property in Hallett Cove. As we get to know the family and their relationships with each other, so too their backyard grows – from the fence, to the paddocks and trees, the flower beds, rose bushes, and the ubiquitous shed – and something ordinary is created in front of our eyes in sometimes beautiful and extraordinary ways. Directed by Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham, Things I Know To Be True is the latest play from acclaimed playwright Andrew Bovell, and marks the first international coproduction by State Theatre Company of South Australia, in this case with UK-based movement company Frantic Assembly. It’s a story about a family, about loving and letting go; about growing and discovering yourself, finding out who you are; about grieving and saying goodbye; about the very particular and universal rhythms of family, and how one family grows over the course of a year.
It’s a neat conceit, at times at little too neat on Bovell’s part, but there is heart here, sometimes buried beneath the surface of the text like the roots of the rose bushes, and sometimes worn on its very sleeve like Rosie’s emotions, but it never feels gratuitous or overstayed. And while some will argue that the scope of the play is nowhere near as broad or fascinating as Bovell’s other work (like When The Rain Stops Falling, Holy Day, or Speaking In Tongues), I would argue that whereas in those plays he was looking outwards, at the effects actions and thoughts have on others in society as well as within the family unit, here Bovell is specifically looking within the family, is looking inward at how family’s work, at the way secrets and lies, truths and half-truths shift and change within a family, at the way families love and keep going, how they survive during times of crisis and stress. And some might argue it isn’t as rewarding as his other works, this is a play which benefits from going into the theatre with open arms, an open mind, and an open heart, and letting it work itself out within you. Bovell himself has said on a number of occasions in the lead-up to the play’s premiere that it is very much inspired by events in his own life, although he is very clear to say it is in no way autobiography, and it shows.
There is a very tangible sense of who these characters are, regardless of whether you like them or not, and they feel real, if a little exaggerated (though sometimes not always in the best way). The cast, the six members of the Price family, find integrity in their roles and give their characters dignity, though I’m not sure if they’re all as pitch-perfect as the play needs. Paul Blackwell as Bob, the head of the family, is avuncular and warm, the rock around which the family gravitates, and his warmth, patience, and tolerance permeates most crises the family finds themselves in, even if he doesn’t quite understand them in their entirety. It’s a touching counterpoint to Eugenia Fragos’ Fran, who seems too shrill, too cruel, too tough on her family, especially Pip the eldest. We later discover this is in part because she loves them, because Pip reminds her of herself but with more passion, but it’s not quite enough to warrant the ending when it comes, which comes out of nowhere (as those events always do) and doesn’t quite affect us as it should. It feels as if Fragos is in a slightly different play to the rest of the family, a harsher, meaner one where tough-love is dispensed like water, and it is in part her performance but also Bovell’s writing for and about her, that doesn’t quite sit within the rest of the world he has created.
Pip, the eldest child, played by Georgia Adamson, bears the brunt of Fran’s disdain, but it perhaps isn’t always intended to hurt as much as it does – to Pip, and to us, the audience. Adamson’s performance is filled with steel and determination, passion for a career that will take her away from her (young) family, and there is something fierce in her defence of her actions which is affecting, even if Fran doesn’t quite allow us to quite feel its full power. Tim Walter’s Mark, the eldest son, is touching in his search for identity, for somewhere to fit in, his struggle and anguish in living as someone who he is not, and lying to himself and his family, the people he loves. There’s also something moving in his relationship with his younger sister Rosie, and we watch this grow in a number of instances, and it is perhaps Rosie who sees through the physical shell of his being and sees him for who he is, when no one else in the family can; their exchange of watches is beautifully executed, and the story of their trip to the airport is gentle and fierce, and hints at something deeper which Bovell’s play doesn’t quite articulate. Nathan O’Keefe’s Ben is something of the rebel, desperately wanting to fit in with people in a vastly different world to him; but there is also something tender to his character which we get glimpses of, glimpses which hint at someone who is still not comfortable with the life he leads, someone who really is just a scared little kid when you peel away the veneer of the high-flying playboy, and it is Rosie who once again bears witness to this. Rosie, played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey is the youngest child, apparently ‘un-planned,’ but she is also the lens through which we see much of the play, the one who brings the whole play into being by her abrupt and all-too-soon return from overseas. There’s a youthfulness to Cobham-Hervey’s Rosie, as well as a maturity beyond her years, but she is again at once neither a child nor an adult but somewhere in between, and as the play grows so too does Rosie until she is ready to spread her wings and leave the family nest and venture into the world on her own. Her emotions are our own, and her eagerness and heartbreaking emotional rawness are beguiling.
Brookman and Graham’s production is handsome, and is directed with clearness and verve. Graham’s sensibility with Frantic Assembly is not imposed upon Bovell’s text, but instead finds spaces within it to open out and bring an elegance, a fluidity that is deceptively simple and more than a little bit magical. Bodies are lifted, turned, tumbled; hands caress and hold, brush past others; gestures and actions are hinted at, and furniture is pushed across the stage with astonishing accuracy – chairs and tables hurtle across the stage to arrive beneath their occupant at precisely the right moment – and it is thrilling. Geoff Cobham’s set goes someway to enhancing this fluidity, this magic, and his design is perhaps influenced by Gregory Crewdson’s work, minutely detailed scenarios which hint at something extraordinary within the mundane, and Cobham creates a backyard out of its essential elements, a garden which is at once specific and recognisable, a garden which becomes a house, a world, a private universe. Cobham’s lighting amplifies his set with angular spotlights, hundreds of floating lights suspended above the stage, rich golds and thin blues, purples and greens, which add texture, warmth, and depth to the otherwise abstracted staging. Ailsa Paterson’s costumes are acutely tuned to the family’s characteristics, to the world that is being created, and add nuance to the ordinariness of the Price family. The music, all existing compositions by German composer Nils Frahm, ripple and sparkle through the space, cascading rhythmically like time moving, days weeks passing, shifting but propelled at a constant pace, and when coupled with Graham’s wordless movement sequences there is a beautiful eloquence which is achieved, of bodies in space in motion, of words and emotions writ large within the space.
Despite all the magic of this production, Bovell’s play feels overwritten at times, as though he is ticking boxes of topical issues, that these issues do not intrinsically spring from the world he has created but rather seem to be foisted upon it. ‘Issues’ such as Pip’s marital fidelity early in the first half form a mirror with Fran’s revelations late in the second half, but there is also a lack of nuance and understanding on Fran’s part when it comes to her daughter’s situation and feelings; Fran’s reaction feels too loud, too harsh, too malicious this early in the play, even if you can understand where she is coming from. Other issues, like Mark’s transitioning to Mia, and Ben’s embezzlement of others’ money don’t quite feel natural to these characters, to Bovell’s world, and although they are explored with heart and relative compassion, they still feel clunky, as though they are present to fulfil the conceit of four children, four seasons, four crises. The thing that carries us through, as with the rest of the play, is how Rosie reacts to these situations, but as important as this is, I don’t feel like this is explored enough – if Rosie is the lens through which the play is focused, the one who kicks it off and through whom we see the family’s struggles, why do we not really get much of her growth until the very end, why does she stay mostly silent throughout her siblings’ Big Scenes? Why does she not play more of an active role in the play rather than being a largely-silent witness?
Rosie’s reaction to Mark’s revelation that his is transgender is shock, she doesn’t know what to say, but their parents – rather than trying to understand Mark’s feelings, his own personal crisis – blunder on through it, offending him and putting more than their foot in it on more than one occasion; while this is recognisable as something parents do, and do well, there is still a lack of nuance here.
Bob and Fran’s private crises, of life fulfilment and finding meaning as everything changes, are well handled and form a searching counterpoint amongst the chaos of the family’s year. It is also mirrored in Rosie’s own journey, her maturation and growing in confidence, in her spreading her wings, and it forms a kind of grace-note towards the end of the play. Part of the Bovell’s exploration is also the generational differences between parents and their children, particularly the baby-boomer generation and Generations X and Y. It’s about decisions which may be black and white, but which are shaded with nuances in every gradation of grey in between; it is about changing values and expectations, about acknowledging this and understanding this, about accepting change and growing from it, but I don’t think it is quite explored enough. We get more than enough of Fran bemoaning her children’s lack of consideration for the others around them, but she herself doesn’t take her own advice and causes rifts in relationships which aren’t mended (or at least not in what we see on stage). And it is here that the ending feels unearned, like it isn’t quite as moving as it could (and should) be; I don’t feel like we are able to love Fran enough – based on what we see and hear, and what we are told of her – in order for the ending to be truly affecting. (And by the time we get to the end, of Bob suspended in the black void of 3 a.m., I wonder if it isn’t a full-circle play – that the phone call we open with is actually that which we hear at the end; that Rosie’s return isn’t a full twelve months before that phone call…)
And as much as I try to fathom the play’s neatness, the almost too-perfect conceit of Bovell’s structure, I cannot help but admire the play, admire the bigness of it, the stagecraft of the production, and the ideas it tackles however successfully. It feels, in many ways, like what The Great Fire at Belvoir was trying to be – a family, one house, four children, generational conflict, working out how to go on when everything around you changes – but I don’t think this play is quite there yet. It feels as though there are two or three things being juggled, rather than the single one which will keep us focused, which will maintain our focus through the story with clarity. And part of this, I think, comes down to whose story is being told in the first place: is it Bob’s, and his search for meaning and fulfilment? Is it Fran’s, and her desire for her children to be better people than she and Bob were, for them to be more than they could be? Is it Pip’s, and her search for something more than what she has, something that will make her happy? Or is it Rosie’s, and her journey from child to adult, from heartbroken and alone to a mature young woman trying to find her niche in the world; a young woman who watches her family shift and change around her, and in doing so finds herself and her own strength to be herself? There can be more than one subplot to the play, but only one central plot – and I don’t know if this play has quite got them in the right configuration, the right balance yet.
As a co-production between State Theatre Company of South Australia and Frantic Assembly, once this production closes in Adelaide, Brookman and Graham will remount the production with an entirely British cast on a UK regional tour from September to December. And while I won’t be able to see that incarnation of the production, it will be interesting to see how a different cast and a different country, how different audiences, will change the play and the production. And indeed it will be interesting, in years to come, to see a different production – new director, new team, new cast – and how a new approach changes and/or tackles, makes sense of the play in their own way, how it would work. Would it work?
At its core, Things I Know To Be True is about love, families, and continuing. How do we love in the twenty-first century? Do we not love enough? Do we love too much? How do we show it (or not)? How do we say the things that need to be said without truly hurting those around us? How do we say goodbye if we’re not ready to do so, if it comes all too soon? What price do we pay for following our hearts, our dreams, our desires, and how do we live with that? How do we settle for the things that might be true and right, but which might not be the things we truly want or desire? How do we know what matters to us, truly, deeply? How do we know ourselves when everything around us is in flux, in doubt? How do we Be – ourselves, the best we can be, the people we need to be to the people who need us most? Simply, how do we love, and at what price does that come?
It’s not an easy question, but it’s one worth asking. This is one thing I know to be true.