Mental illness has been a fringe conversation for many years now whether in discussion of the government reducing or stagnating essential services for mental health care, or as a sticky glob hurled at politicians who don’t perform appropriately, or as the mysterious explanation for violent tragedy. The truth is that mental illnesses like depression and consequences like suicide are painful, complicated, and very common.
After an incredibly popular run in March 2019, Every Brilliant Thing is back on the Belvoir stage for a limited run to reiterate its message of dragging mental illness into the light and making room for honest discussion. Writer Duncan Macmillan and co-writer and original performer Jonny Donahoe pare back theatrics to the bare minimum of a person on stage with a story. Told in the round and with all lights up, the theatre is as open as it can get.
If the staging is simple, the scripting is not. As an unusual experiment with collaborative theatre-making, the audience is invited into the production as guest narrators and as full characters including a vet, a councillor, the narrator’s father, and his wife. In these encounters the script is generous and gentle in the way it guides the audience through their role. These moments reveal a glimpse into the careful construction of a production that otherwise runs like natural conversation.
In the initial staging by Belvoir, director Kate Champion and co-director Steve Rodgers worked with Kate Mulvany as the central narrator and performer but this reprisal sees Steve Rodgers stepping into the ring to tell the story of a young boy who grows up in the shadow of his mother’s repeated attempts to take her own life. In order to stave off her bouts of depression, the boy begins to compose a list of 1000 brilliant things, things worth living for. Beginning with ice cream, the list grows, reappearing at opportune times throughout the boy’s life when he needs guidance or a helping hand against his own flagging mental health. It becomes a strong symbol of hope, a counter-talisman to the painful threat of depression that hovers over the boy’s life.
It is a sentimental story that leans heavily into emotional vulnerability but Rodgers’s performance adds a gruff blokiness that undercuts the occasional twee aesthetic with something more grounded. He develops a quick affection between the audience and performer that similarly endears the idea of the list and anyone he invites on stage to enliven it. The openness of such a bare theatrical experience allows room for roaring laughs of recognition in a silly brilliant thing as well as sombre silence at the facts of suicide woven amongst the anecdotes.
Champion’s direction holds the performance lightly in order to find authenticity between audience and performer. With this rendition, though, the production welcomes responses quickly and seems to rush into the circumstances of the list too enthusiastically. Later, when Rodgers’s character is older and more reflective, the mellowed atmosphere smooths over any initial speediness.
At its core, Every Brilliant Thing is a story shared by many searching for a conversation. In its production it orchestrates a safe and considered response that resonates beyond the theatre’s walls.
Every Brilliant Thing is running at Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre from January 10th – 26th