There is something almost magical about the way a carefully crafted work for the stage can sweep a person up, transporting us somewhere extraordinary before releasing us back into the world, enriched and enlightened by the experience. Often this theatrical sorcery is the sum of many parts; a cast of actors, clever lighting design, sets, costumes and sound effects. But occasionally a production comes along that is so viscerally supercharged that it can grab hold with nothing more than an idea. Every Brilliant Thing is a show such as this, offering one of the most superbly observed explorations of mental health and human emotion I have ever witnessed on stage, using nothing more than a single performer, a handful of musical excerpts and an inspired amount of audience participation.
The production’s title refers to a list of everything that’s wonderful in the world. Started in childhood, it begins with childish things like ice-cream, Danger Mouse and being allowed to stay up late. As the narrative progresses, the list matures to include the things we cherish in adulthood, like falling in love and waking up next to somebody. In isolation, this catalogue of simple pleasures would be unforgivably mawkish, but the creation of the list frames a more poignant story. We learn that the narrator’s mother wants to kill herself, and as pitifully futile as the exercise inevitably is, the list is a vain attempt to persuade her that life might actually be worth living.
Award-winning British playwright Duncan Macmillian, whose superb adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 earned rave reviews when it toured to Melbourne last year, has created a text that exists as an unlikely collection of contradictions. It is autobiographical and yet also universally accessible, heartbreakingly touching but simultaneously hilarious, and deals with some deeply complex, easily mishandled topics with an elegant, affable clarity. However, arguably the most impressive accomplishment of Every Brilliant Thing is the effortlessness with which all these opposites coexist.
Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing
This is surely thanks to the infectiously upbeat personality of this work’s sole performer and co-author, Jonny Donahoe. Before the performance, he distributes small pieces of paper to a selection of audience members. On them is written a number and its corresponding brilliant thing. In another’s hands the audience participation that plays such a vital role in the success of this show would fall awkwardly flat, however, Donahoe is such a nurturing presence that as various people are called on to recite their item, and others are recruited to stand in for various key characters, the buzz and enthusiasm of the experience is impossible to resist. When participants go above and beyond, adding a little daring chutzpah to their few seconds in the spotlight, Donahoe reacts with total delight. A rapport between audience and actor as relaxed and fruitful as this is (appropriately) a brilliant thing.
Much of this show is laugh out loud funny and largely this comedy is situational as various audience members add their personal quirks to the proceedings. But it’s this play’s highs that allow its lows to strike with such devastating pathos. It tackles the subject of depression head on, without diluting or sugarcoating it and yet it manages to do so with such a finely tuned awareness of humour’s ability to communicate that this text never feels difficult to engage with. Again, this reveals another contradiction, one that is incredibly precious and all too rare. Every Brilliant Thing is powerfully moving and yet as uplifting and affirming an experience as you are ever likely to find at the theatre – and that might be the most brilliant thing of all.
Perth International Festival of the Arts presents Every Brilliant Thing, until February 20. It tours to Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, March 8 – 20.