When it comes to relationships, those within the family can be the most complex and difficult.
Australian playwright Andrew Bovell – writer of now-classic plays When The Rain Stops Falling (2008) and Speaking In Tongues (2003) – has a particular flair for imagining how fraught family relationships play out in modern Australia. His intricate narratives for stage and screen attest to his skill for crafting emotionally stunning family stories.
It’s therefore surprising to see one of his most recent works, Things I Know To Be True, follow this well-worn (but not worn out) terrain in ways that feel uncharacteristically conventional for this writer, and this is what makes Black Swan State Theatre Company’s staging of the work a slightly disappointing experience.
As we meet this family at the centre of story – recently retired father Bob (played by Humphrey Bower), working nurse mother Fran (Caroline Brazier), and their four adult children Pip (Emma Jackson), Mark (Kaz Kane), Ben (Will O’Mahony) and Rosie (Laura Shaw), we realise that something has gone terribly wrong for this family, and we’re about to learn more about how the wheels have fallen off.
But as we journey with these characters – Fran played especially well by consummate performer Brazier, who in many ways carries the show from the first moment she appears – their struggles and experiences feel stereotypical, and their issues a bit staid (societal conversations have shifted since this play premiered seven years ago, so framing the story as one set in the present day feels off the mark).
That said, there are some outstanding moments of emotional pull delivered by the cast, showing how well Director Kate Champion has shaped this work.
As we watch Pip sitting alone on a raised-brick rose bed in her childhood back garden, we feel her pain and regret as she repeatedly cries out (to no one in particular): ‘This garden is the world.’
We’re also drawn in to some unearthed home truths when Fran – overworked and seemingly at her wit’s end – spits venomously at the rose bed of how she hates those roses: ‘They are just an excuse for living.’
And it’s here we start to appreciate one of the work’s most dynamic strengths: its exquisite set and lighting design. Comprising three large geometric blocks, the set’s cleverly designed pillars bring a metaphorical voice and add depth to this work’s foundations.
Arguably the most important of the three areas of focus is the white rectangular rose bed topped with half-manicured rose bushes bursting through. It’s what father Bob obsesses over in his retirement. It’s where so many things have been planted, nurtured and grown.
Then there’s the large glass sliding door, which at times slices down the stage, at other times across. This is the work’s beautifully poetic transparent threshold space.
And, finally, there’s the sturdy stone kitchen bench – the hearth and a familiar reminder of what regular families do in supposedly regular suburbs across Australia.
What set designer Zoe Atkinson and lighting designer Mark Howett have achieved here (no doubt in consultation with Champion) gives the work the nuance and artistic prowess it needs to overcome its sometimes predictable narrative threads.
As the set is swivelled by the actors and rotated like a dial, we see emotional interiors unravel, and outside threats break in. It’s especially interesting to see how the cast members push and pull the set pieces into place – echoing their characters’ struggles and their quests to get their lives in order.
Howett’s lighting also brings devastating emotional detail to some scenes, as we watch characters gaze through the glass sliding doors at close distance – their faces also reflected back to them like a mirror. We see them desperate to look beyond themselves – but they can’t. The subtle sound score by Ash Gibson Greig adds beautifully to these moments, too.
Ultimately, this play seems a safe debut choice by Black Swan’s new Director but, thanks to its rich visual elements, it ventures to riskier places at times. It’s a well-played story that is definitely worth a look.
Things I Know To Be True by Andrew Bovell
A Black Swan State Theatre Company production
Director: Kate Champion
Cast: Humphrey Bower, Caroline Brazier, Emma Jackson, Kaz Kane, Will O’Mahony and Laura Shaw
Set and Costume Designer: Zoë Atkinson
Lighting Designer: Mark Howett
Composer and Sound Designer: Ash Gibson Greig
Show Head of Audio: Tim Collins
Vocal Coach: Luzita Fereday
Fight Choreographer: Nastassja Norwood
Stage Manager: Izzy Taylor
Assistant Stage Manager: Riley Billyeald
Things I Know To Be True will be performed until 18 June. Tickets from $30-$119.