I’ve never seen a standing ovation at the theatre before, but I found myself in the middle of one at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, at the end of Things I Know To Be True. A mostly student audience, so easily excitable, but this response was both extraordinary and rewarding.
Falling for the truth
I was blown away by this production. I had an expectation that it was going to be something special; any play involving Imogen Stubbs has a lot going for it before the curtain even goes up, but the contribution by everyone in the cast was quite breath-taking.
The cast. Photo (c) Carl Woodward
The production is a collaboration between the UK based Frantic Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Yes, it was frantic and yes there was quite a lot of Australian in the play. The northern British accents were incongruous, but engaging. The co-directors describe the Prices as “In some ways a quintessential Australian family”, but add that the story is also “both utterly Australian and completely global in its intimate embrace of the struggles that invade family life”.
So, on to the mechanics of the drama. The performance includes some exquisite overhead lifting, with Rosie first and later Fran being passed around by the rest of the cast. Supervised floating rather than carrying. This is all brilliantly choreographed and integrated into the main action. Somehow it fits in and makes sense. We also see Bob leaning forward but never quite falling, almost impossibly. OK, he’s on a harness. In a late scene humanity is brought low to the ground as Bob wallows in the rose beds.
Rosie (Kirsty Oswald), floating around in ecstacy.
Photo via The Guardian
Fran (Imogen Stubbs), in a moment of ethereality
The play is crammed full of experiences which purport to represent normal family life but end up taking us to emotional extremes. I’m not convinced that any normal family, whatever normal means, can have so much trauma and devastation in their lives, in so many ways, and still live those lives without collapsing or going insane. Still, the things they know may not be true for all of us, but some will be. And it’s quite an uncomfortable experience taking it all in and thinking ‘yes, that resonates with me’.
The first half takes place entirely in the garden. Pip reflects nostalgically on everything that has happened there over the years. “This garden is the world. Family cricket and totem tennis tournaments. Hey Presto! And cartwheels across the lawn. Fashion parades and sleepovers. Sunday barbecues. Eighteenth birthday parties. Twenty-firsts. Engagements. And even a wedding. Mine. It has all happened here and more”. This description seems almost mischievous, and Bovell is setting us up for big surprises.
Bob (Ewan Steward) consoling Pip (Natalie Casey), in one of many awful moments.
Photo via OfficialLondonTheatre.com
The title says a lot. We watch people thinking they know certain things, but then seeing their lives unfold, learning about themselves and each other. Discovering things they don’t want to know, and being forced to accept that they are true. Or were true. And yet surviving.
There are plenty of revelations. So much heartbreak, despair, anger. Not much joy, but there surely has been joy in between the traumas dominating the characters’ lives. Layers and layers of hints and recollections. Crises and trivia. The darker themes tend to trump the levity.
Fran comes out with a surprising claim when she scoffs at the idea that the point of life is to be happy. The most important thing for a woman, she says, is independence. Happiness may not be essential, but independence? Which of us is truly independent within a family?
Fran (Imogen Stubbs) - an independent woman?
Photo (c) Manuel Harlan
We need to explore Truth. The truth about love and relationships. The destructive power of secrets, lies and untold truths. Actual and potential. The truth that falls out through the process of discovery, through time. And then it’s all about perspective and relevance, and how much weight and impact any of this truth really has. For at any stage, there are choices in life. You either settle with what you have, or change. Not everyone needs to know what you decide, or that there was ever a question in the first place. There is such a thing as too much honesty.
Another disconcerting theme is the lack of progress between the generations. Towards the end, Bob reflects “It wasn’t meant to be like this...I thought they’d be like us. But better than us. Better versions of us”. That might be what parents expect, but it really is quite a tall order.
Ben (Richard Mylan) brought low by his antics in the City
And so, to Rosie’s list of things. A revised, more experienced list than one she had at the beginning. She now realises there are very few things in life that you can genuinely know to be genuinely true. And these things can change over time.
This is what Rosie now knows to be true: “I know that things can’t remain the same no matter how much you want them to. I know that people aren’t perfect. Even the people you love, and I know that love is not enough to save them”. This is all rather sad, and doesn’t seem to leave much room for future happiness.
This felt like a ‘proper’ play. Classic, contemporary theatre. A triumph for Andrew Bovell and the cast. Brilliantly crafted and performed. There is so much truth on show, in all its various guises. And knowledge. Both of which are subjective sometimes, and impossible to misconstrue at others. And rarely comforting or reassuring. But somehow the family deals with things, with life, with plenty of unexpected jolts along the way. And twists and turns. There is a huge surprise at the end. A stunning denouement. One which really must be experienced in a theatrical environment. You don’t want it to happen in real life.
The emotional impact generated is exhausting and devastating. I’m not going to admit how many of the things presented in the play are true to me, but I am prepared to recognise that some of them must be.
If you missed the play at the Lyric, there is still chance to catch it on tour. Reading the script just won’t cut it.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
See Imogen Stubbs - In Profile by Connected Cultures here
Frantic Assembly (theatre company)
State Theatre Company South Australia