Some forty-five years ago, there was very little information and treatment available for mental illness so, when Anne’s first son Jonathan began acting out, getting aggressive, skipping school, and speaking about things no one else could see, the rough road to a diagnosis was only the beginning of the family’s battle to get Jonathan help and safety.
The arc of Tell Me I’m Here, the popular memoir by Anne Deveson adapted for the stage by Veronica Nadine Gleeson, begins with Jonathan’s (Tom Conroy) birth, with some slight complications, and then follows him through childhood as a bit of a loner, into adolescence when he started pulling away from school and retreated into his mind, into early adulthood when his symptoms worsened and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and then through his roughest years bouncing between jail, hospital, and homelessness, struggling with an illness that made him paranoid, violent, and unpredictable. Alongside him was his mother Anne (Nadine Garner) who worked for years advocating for him, seeking out treatment, and repeatedly begging medical institutions to help her son before his illness reached crisis, when it was still possible to prevent harm. Throughout these years, Anne was a broadcaster for the ABC, the mother of two other children Georgia (Jana Zvedeniuk) and Joshua (Raj Labade), and, in her attempts to find answers for Jonathan and to destigmatise schizophrenia in Australia, the founder of the National Schizophrenia Australia Organisation.
Structured around Anne’s monologue narration of her son’s life, Gleeson’s script recalls conversations within the Almighty Sometimes of mothers, not only as caretakers of their children, but their witnesses and record-keepers, as well. This is particularly poignantly conveyed in Anne’s constant presence on stage as her children, partners, friends, coworkers, and numerous doctors, nurses, specialists, police, and social workers stream around her. But the focus remains on Jonathan and his peaks and troughs of illness, the options that remain open to him, and the immense love Anne has for him as she dedicates so much of herself to taking him to psychiatrist appointments, visiting him in hospital, or investigating radical treatments like a retreat in India that used physical restraints and light torture to focus patients’ minds and find cures for their mental anguish.
Set designer Stephen Curtis infiltrated the production with reminders of Jonathan’s mental state by turning the stage into a big blank white page upon which Jonathan doodled arrows, borders, spiders, and skulls. Over the course of the production, these doodles that represented Jonathan’s fears and intrusive thoughts, overtook the family’s large wooden dining table and even larger bookcase, enveloping them all in his illness. At the same time, lighting designer Veronique Benett used the expansive white space to cast artistic, multi-layered lighting states that multiplied characters’ shadows, brought hulking dreams to life, and fractured the stage between thick, colourful psychosis and a stark, blinding white “reality”.
Despite depictions of severe illness, individual and institutional violence, and great sadness, Tell Me I’m Here was buoyed by immense love, which director Leticia Cáceres concentrated in the authentic human relationships of the characters. Garner’s Anne was emotionally potent, often vibrating with love for her children or anger and frustration at their pain and her helplessness. She commanded attention for the story unfolding around her and directed the audience’s empathy with skill. The surrounding family of Georgia, Joshua, and Anne’s ex-husband Ellis and long-term partner Robert (both Sean O’Shea) were flexibly portrayed as examples of life moving on, small planets orbiting in Anne and Jonathan’s gravity. Brief glimpses of mercy and care came through in Labade as a family physician and Deborah Galanos as both an understanding parol officer and a friend for Anne to vent to, but more often than not, the ensemble’s transitions through background characters were fleeting.
Against Garner’s distinguished central performance, Conroy offered an ambitious and memorable portrayal of Jonathan. When mental illness is so often represented in sensationalist ways, as inhuman or frightening or doomed, Conroy’s Jonathan was moving for his sense of humble, earnest honesty. Of particular note was the way Conroy shifted between mental anguish and lucidity while always maintaining the essence of Jonathan as a cheeky, imaginative, and thoughtful person. Overarching the performance, as Jonathan’s symptoms worsened and his good days became fewer and further between, the threat of his death loomed, making each scene finer and more brittle until the last one.
In the final moments of the production, when the bright lights on Jonathan’s sketchbook mind had dimmed, the two-fold tragedy of Tell Me I’m Here crystallised. Firstly, the tragedy of Jonathan’s painful life and early death and, secondly, the tragedy that so often these stories are told by friends and relatives, not by the people themselves. Stigma, lack of information, and insufficient care for mental illnesses sacrifice thousands of lives every year and leave the friends and family behind to convince our country to care.
Tell Me I’m Here is running at Belvoir from August 20th – September 25th
To help support Night Writes, please consider tipping.