There are things that parents say that perhaps they regret later; they are too close to the truth, they cut to the bone, and they are unnecessarily cruel.
Parents are just people – and there comes a time when children realise and forgive.
Things I Know to Be True by Andrew Bovell is focused on family – the pleasures, the demands, the relationships between daughters and their mothers, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. The play themes would resonate for many in their audience – conversations are so normal, every day, so common, and yet so explosive.
Bovell has said the seeds of this play were sown in his own childhood as one in four children who grew in a WA country town and in Perth suburbs. It took shape as Bovell and co-directors Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham, workshopped the idea with a group of actors who shared stories of their own families getting it wrong and getting it right, and the ideas eventually shaped the play into its current state. Directed by Neil Armfield, the ensemble cast of six shares equally in the stories. It is a time of change for each of them, starting with the youngest daughter Rosie (Miranda Daughtry) who returns from Europe with a broken heart; her ‘boyfriend’ has run off with her iPad and money. She longs for home where nothing changes and yet in just a year, everything is changing. Rosie’s return already sets up the relationships with each member of her family. She is the pet of the family – her father adores her, her mother says she is the favourite (and she’s close to it), her sister and brothers all love her. Her father accepts anything she says and doesn’t press her to explain her return, but her mother, who wants to prove she knows everything, immediately suggests it’s a boy that has brought Rosie back. It’s the beginning of a pattern for her mother Fran (Helen Thompson) who likes to still call the shots on her children and husband, particularly her eldest daughter Pip (Anna Lise Phillips).
Tony Martin plays the father, Bob, to perfection. While the rest of the cast is strong, particularly Thompson, for me Martin really shines as the star. As Bob, he is a working-class bloke, retired too early, and is now waiting to see what is left for him. He enjoys simple pleasures, his garden and his family and dancing around the kitchen with his wife. But Fran wants more. She has been unhappy for a long time and has been taking it out on the family in the way she snaps and shouts.
Each character develops through a major change. What is happening in each of their lives brings strong reactions from their parents – some situations more strongly than others.
There is the beautifully haunting Leonard Cohen song Famous Blue Raincoat which unites Fran and Pip through memory and shared experience. The family dynamic is complex, just as in any family – the things we say and regret, the things we don’t get to say, the things we don’t say the way we want to, and sometimes the right words we find at the right time.
The staging is relatively stark, decorated only with plastic outdoor furniture and a flower box of rose bushes which illustrate the changing of the seasons passing with their flowering, pruning, cutting back, and regenerating. The rose bushes become an integral part of the storytelling.
There are many funny lines, the dialogue is clever, and the interactions are never overworked. Director Armfield sums it up it best when he says he was attracted to the play because it feels so monumentally complete. “The family has this feeling of being a kind of microcosm of society. Parents don’t mean to, but they mess you up, each in their own different ways…The kids are all dealing with what everyone is dealing with in Australia at the moment.”
The parents contend with each child and their issues – they talk to them as adults and as children. They cannot lose their perspective as parents; they see their children as a challenge and requiring sacrifice, but always also love. The play is contemporary but classic at the same time. The dialogue and swearing may change slightly depending on the different era.
Things I Know to Be True will appeal to all ages. We have all been children, and most of us have been part of these conversations. For those students in the audience, to be able to see and realise their parents are human, make mistakes but likely love them, this play may be a revelation; to the older members of the audience, it will bring some understanding, and for everyone – some bloody good entertainment.
Armfield and Bovell make a perfect team. They were last seen together at Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River.