Mental illness is a very isolating experience because many of the symptoms of mental illnesses, especially depression, attack the parts of the mind that interpret relationships, make meaningful connections, and experience joy. Often the effects of mental illness are not felt until a tragedy occurs, a suicide or another violent physical manifestation of the illness, when the impact radiates outwards through family, friends, and communities.
Every Brilliant Thing is about the child of a woman with depression and how her mother’s illness has shaped her own life. From seven to seventeen and into adulthood, her life is bookmarked by her mother’s suicide attempts and the deep, dark lows of the depressive cycle. The character carries the fear that this illness will eventually kill her mother and that then it will come for her. Hence, the list. In order to hold on to what is good in the world when illness attempts to hide joy, the girl decides to keep a list of every brilliant thing in the whole world, which grows to become a symbol big enough to battle depression.
As a single woman show, the script invites the audience directly into this child’s life by recreating scenes as a vet, her father, a university lecturer, a sock puppet, and her eventual husband. In this way, the audience becomes literally involved in the story. There is an electricity to the possibilities such a dynamic form attracts and it amplifies the emotion of the room. With an actor of a lower caliber, this style simply wouldn’t work but Kate Mulvany is a master of her craft. The audience is following her every step of the way and she controls their acquiescent enthusiasm perfectly.
With a script that turns on a knife’s edge between beauty and laughter and tragedy and despair, writer Duncan Macmillan has distilled the art of theatre to the purest essence of a conversation between performer and audience. Originally written with and performed by Jonny Donahoe, Every Brilliant Thing takes on a new life re-worked for Mulvany and performed for her Sydney community. In her performer’s note, Mulvany connects this production to her brother Mark’s death and her experience of the difficulty in finding people to have an honest conversation with about what happened to him. In this work, Macmillan and Donahoe have found a way to balance the discussion of the highs and lows of mental illness honestly.
There’s an argument to be made about the simplicity of confronting debilitating mental illness with a list of good things, but the script does not shy away from acknowledging the childish “Do Re Mi” attitude of such a solution. It is, after all, the idea of a seven year old. It is refreshing to see a production not approaching mental illness and suicide as a problem to be solved. Director Kate Champion, co-director Steve Rodgers, Mulvany, and their team are not offering this production as an answer but are instead encouraging the acceptance that depression and suicide are a part of our lives and that we should learn how to talk about them.
This is theatre magic pared back to the bare necessities and simultaneously defying a form that so often strives for encapsulation and completeness. Every Brilliant Thing is messy and ever-changing and true.
Every Brilliant Thing is running at Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre from March 8th – 31st. The production will then tour to Riverside Theatre from April 3rd – 6th with Steve Rodgers performing.