Peer into the suburban backyard inside Belvoir’s upstairs theatre, and you’ll find there a microcosm of the Australian heart.
It’s a big, bloody, and at times pretty ugly thing, compulsively pumping anger and love. Romance and sentimentality don’t have much part in making it work, but it’s what sustains the Price family that calls that place home.
Written by acclaimed Australian playwright Andrew Bovell, Things I Know To Be True is an uproarious, devastating and quintessential chronicle of a family struggling to find the difference between finding autonomy and falling apart.
Directed with tremendous compassion by Belvoir co-founder Neil Armfield, it’s a masterpiece drama of what family means: the compromises it demands, the roiling emotional war zone it can represent, the sanctuary it can afford. The beautiful, brutal mess of it. To the myth of the stable family unit, this play gives a deep and knowing chuckle.
We spend a full year in this backyard, the beloved turf of parents Bob (Tony Martin) and Fran (Helen Thomson). After working his life on the factory line, Bob, a sweet-hearted bloke, now tends his rose bushes – pushing mulch about and trying to fill the unnervingly enormous vaults of his days.
He coddles his daughters, holds a high bar for his sons, and quietly worships (while quietly enduring) his wife. Fran, a tough as nails nurse and outrageously blunt, watches her husband’s decline with a wearied eagle eye and surveys the wayward trajectories of her scattering brood.
The four kids are Rosie, Mark, Ben and Pip. Somehow, they’ve gone from doing cartwheels on the lawn to becoming never-quite-fully-formed adults. They have their own headstrong hopes and plans, ideas and identities. Never mind that Ben still brings his dirty shirts for his mum to iron, or that Rosie’s still fumbling her way through aborted Europe trips and vague dreams.
Bob thought they’d be mini versions of themselves – just better off – but daily, the decisions of each prove him utterly wrong.
The career-minded Pip (Anna Lise Phillips) most resembles her mother, only she’s the version who said ‘yes’ where the martyr-warrior Fran said ‘no’. (For this, Pip is punished.)
Ben (Matt Levett) has done his best to disavow his working-class roots, and his slick yuppie lifestyle – with its ruthless ambition, celebrated selfishness, and garish exhibitionism – is an affront to his dad. Of course, Ben would like nothing better than to take his dad for a spin in his flashy new car.
Rosie, the youngest, meanders wide-eyed through her days, her devotion to family stifling her knowledge of herself.
Mark on the other hand (Tom Hobbs), knows himself best of the lot – but when he shares this honest, ineluctable truth about himself, he faces exile.
Time has heaved the old folk into an unfamiliar world, with strange moral codes and new possibilities of being. The ideas and behaviours of their kids frighten them, as much as their own worldviews threaten the kids – and we learn that the supposedly infinite, immediate acceptance of a parent for their child doesn’t always hold true.
The entire cast does full justice to Bovell’s brilliant script, but none more so than Helen Thomson.
She brings all her powers to this towering, complicated matriarch: a woman whom nothing ever gets past, and is always, always right. She provokes gasps from the audience with the cruellest, most cutting words directed to her own flesh and blood. More often though, that same unforgiving talk provokes deep, appreciative rolls of laughter. Not a scene goes by which doesn’t offer up some priceless and deeply familiar domestic moment or exchange.
The characters the play conjures are all so recognisable, it’s like they’ve always been there, making do and getting by inside our collective memory – conflicted, loveable, at times ridiculous.
Just like Fran’s principle of loving each of her children equally – if in a different way – the script plays no favourites. Through monologues that interleave and abridge the dialogue, the play shifts its penetrating gaze to the conflicted inner lives and histories of each.
Stephen Curtis’ set also resembles a place straight out of suburban myth, from the plastic chairs to the cracked and faded green paving. As a symbol of change and regeneration, as well as a marker of time, the rose bushes bloom and wilt and bloom again over the play’s four seasons. Designed by prop maker Simon Macgyver, they’re completely fake, but look as real as the roses my own mum tended in her front yard flowerbed, where I was once rooted in the margins of Perth.
When should a parent intervene in their child’s life, this play asks, and when must they let go? What holds everyone together, if everyone changes? What does love look like, and can the centre hold?
As one character says, right near the play’s tender, shocking end: “Sometimes you can give too much and sometimes you can give not enough, and knowing the right place in-between wasn’t easy.”
Things I Know To Be True is an epic drama almost three-hours long. It is a must-see this winter.