In Black Swan Theatre’s production of Every Brilliant Thing, written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, performer Luke Hewitt calmly relates over 40 years of psychological ups and downs in a steady, reassuring voice. He never raises his voice, he never entirely breaks down. The emotion is warm but subdued. It is a bit like being gently rubbed in a fluffy blanket for an hour.
Performed in the round in a suitably intimate space where spectators look towards each other, designer Fiona Bruce has placed a circular, flocked rug centre stage to further emphasise this sense of warm embrace.
Presented as a solo show where audience members are coaxed into physically embodying and responding to those with whom the protagonist interacts (his father, his girlfriend, his vet, his lecturer, his school counsellor), the piece is basically an extended monologue. Participants are given clear instructions and what amounts to scripts, and while the strength of these lay performances varies, it is Hewitt’s narration of his character’s growth from childhood through to a battered but resolute middle age that drives the show. Here, Hewitt and director Adam Mitchell repeatedly emphasise simplicity, an unhurried pace, gentleness, and something of a sense of childish wonder – as well as a very real difficulty in coming fully to terms with harsh realities, a point to which I return below.
The narrative charts the intergenerational trauma of living first with a suicide attempt by the mother, and then the effects of her much later actual suicide, as this affects the protagonist, his relationships, and then, finally, the son’s own feelings of personal loss—personal in the sense that it is a loss of his actual person, his confidence, and even his childish love of life.
When his mother initially attempts suicide, he begins a list of one thousand “brilliant” or wonderful things which might be considered worth living for. As the protagonist matures, he tells us that the delivery of the list to his mother becomes more sophisticated, playful and surprising: engraved on fruit, notes hidden in books, and so on. In later life he shares his list with the world in general, and it begins to grow exponentially. He dreams of a million brilliant things. But his own state of mind, his own faith in the power of small gestures building to something bigger, crashes.
In many shows, audience participation is not always welcomed, but the effect here, on myself anyway, was surprising. Watching other spectators forced to take a role, I was forced to question what I would do in such a role, much as in role play therapy itself. This is part of the empathetic power of the work, and it certainly draws one in. Audiences are also offered numbered selections from the list to shout out when prompted by Hewitt, and this forces one to be attentive to the words, since one can never be entirely sure your number won’t come up. These are simple but extremely successful strategies.
A particular treat of this production is the protagonist’s discussion of music. Music was one of the “brilliant things” which the mother herself embraced, singing around the piano in a rare moment of familial celebration. The father, we are told, was all but perpetually bathed in music, and one could identify his mood and willingness to speak to others by what he played in his office. Ornette Coleman and free jazz signified a desire to be left to his own thoughts.
Music therefore punctuates scenes, as our protagonist reminds us of just how beatifically inspiring Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up is (though as a lover of funk, I personally need no reminding!). To quote Stuart Hall from John Akomfrah’s superb documentary, Miles Davis and his music has the ability to “put his finger on my soul” and express complex experiences and feelings. It is indeed likely that fellow UK countrymen Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe were influenced by Akomfrah’s wonderful use of music and soundtrack in his various filmic works.
Both talking about, and sharing the listening to, music allows Every Little Thing to gently paint little miniatures of poetic reverie, to gesture towards emotions and experiences which are hard to express in language, and which therefore otherwise remain unacknowledged and unsaid.
Herein perhaps lies the provocative irony of Every Brilliant Thing. Hewitt closes the performance with an out-of-character reminder, delivered direct to the audience, that if I, the audience member, am ever depressed, if I have dark thoughts, feelings, or if I contemplate suicide, the first thing – the best thing – I can do is to talk to someone. Every Brilliant Thing is itself primarily a piece of live spoken word performance: an act of talking about one’s experiences to others. Yet the actual feelings, the dark, depressing thoughts, images of self harm, and various horrible feelings which the protagonists struggle with remain unspoken in the play itself. We are told, and entirely I agree, that we should speak about suicide and thoughts of suicide. God knowns my 18-year-old self had enough of thoughts of self harm, and I’m glad I regained my joy for life. But, ironically, Every Brilliant Thing is unable to actually speak of, or even to, these painful thoughts themselves in a direct manner. The strategy – and it’s a good one –is to basically write over darkness by filling your mind and your heart with a million brilliant things. It’s certainly worth a try, and I commend the artists for proposing it.
Every Brilliant Thing runs at the State Theatre Centre, Perth until 18 September.
If this content has raised any concerns for you, services which may be of assistance include the Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 (free, 24 hours, 7 days a week), which is staffed by people with professional qualifications who call you, at a time that suits you. Lifeline offers 24-hour counselling services and can be reached at 13 11 14. Additional information can be found on their website. The following youth counselling services are also available: youth mental health foundation Headspace and Youth Helpline 1800 55 1800. You may also consider speaking to a trusted source or engaging your local GP.