Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know to Be True explores dynamics of suburbia
APRIL 16, 2016 12:00AM
Andrew Bovell at a rehearsal for Things I Know to Be True. Picture: Kelly Barnes.
Heartbroken, homesick and half a world away from her family in Australia, a teenage Tilda Cobham-Hervey sat on a London train station in tears after a relationship breakup.
Then a fledgling actress, she had been feeling independent and brave before the “rug got pulled out” from under her feet and suddenly she felt naive and vulnerable.
“I ended up indulging in that for a moment, so to try and pull myself together I got on the train and made a list of all the things I know to be true,’’ Cobham-Hervey says.
Now 22, the Adelaide-born Cobham-Hervey was then an anonymous traveller, taking a break after filming two independent Adelaide films yet to appear in cinemas.
In telling of her heartbreak to playwright Andrew Bovell during creative development sessions in 2014, her story became the germ and the title of a new Australian play.
Bovell says his fifth play, Things I Know to Be True, is an intimate study of a typical Adelaide suburban family headed by working-class parents Bob and Fran and told through the experiences of their four adult children. The story unfolds through four seasons, each containing a crisis — such as death, sexuality and separation — as each child reaches a turning point and must make tough choices about the future that have ramifications for the family.
Bovell has become regarded as a great Australian storyteller through screen — Lantana and A Most Wanted Man — and stage. His 2009 work When the Rain Stops Falling has gone before audiences in London and New York and is earmarked for a television series in a co-production with the BBC and Australia’s Jan Chapman.
Fresh from critical acclaim for his stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River at Sydney Theatre Company, and since performed in other cities, Bovell was co-commissioned by the State Theatre Company of South Australia and British physical theatre group Frantic Assembly for the new work.
State Theatre Company artistic director Geordie Brookman and Bovell knew each other professionally and were almost neighbours, Brookman growing up in Kangarilla and Bovell in Willunga in Adelaide’s southern wine region of McLaren Vale. Brookman directed Bovell’s play Speaking in Tongues in 2011, which was previously adapted for the screen as Lantana, but the two have never worked together.
Bovell’s major request, as he juggled a score of other commitments, was to be given a two-year lead time to bring the story to life and to be theatrically and formally challenged. In an inclusive approach, Bovell, Brookman and Frantic artistic director Scott Graham earmarked the artists with whom they wanted to work — including Bovell’s wife Eugenia Fragos (The Slap) and Paul Blackwell, who play the parents — to kickstart the writing process.
“When we got together as a group, we told a lot of stories to each other about family, and Tilly, who plays the youngest daughter Rosie, told a beautiful story about travelling to Europe for her first time as quite a young woman,’’ Bovell says. “That big ritual that young Australians do — they go overseas, they go to Europe, it’s the old world, it’s the more sophisticated world — and she had her heart broken by a boy and she was so homesick and so alone and so fearful and everything this trip turned out to be wasn’t turning out, and so to ground herself, she was on a train platform, she made a list of things she knew to be true.”
Nineteen-year-old Rosie is forming her beliefs and convictions, bookending the loss of certainty experienced by her father Bob, Bovell says.
“It’s about the cycle of life; as the youngest member of the family moves towards certainty, moves towards convictions, the oldest member of the family, the father, is losing the convictions by which he’s lived his life by. He’s becoming less certain about life,’’ he says.
The timing is right for Bovell to write his version of the big family play, in the tradition of Pulitzer prize-winning American work August: Osage County, after recently grieving over the loss of his mother and saying goodbye to the youngest of his children, who left home to head to university this year. “To be frank, Mum died not that long ago and it’s that time when you’re finally nobody’s child that maybe you’re ready to explore some questions about what all that means. Now having brought up my own kids, I really find myself back at the place that I ran away from, and that’s the kind of cycle of life as well,’’ he says.
“There’s a lot of my mum and dad in this couple, there’s a lot of Eugenia and I and people I know. It’s not autobiographical … but there is so much I recognise in myself and my own family. This play is very suburban. I really wanted to explore the place that I live in, which happens to be the southern suburbs of Adelaide, and the world I grew up in and the world I ran away from, which is Australian suburbia.”
He also describes a wider story of economic transition from the boomer to the X and Y generations as Blackwell’s character Bob, the family patriarch and a retrenched worker from carmaker Mitsubishi in Adelaide’s southern suburbs, and his wife Fran, who still works as a nurse for a public hospital, give their children every opportunity.
“They’re very much everyday people who have worked hard so that their children had a tertiary education. All four have gone to university and the parents have brought their kids up with the expectation that they will be better versions of their parents: earn more, better educated,” Bovell says. “The whole irony is that you bring your children up to have more choices in life and it means they will probably make choices that actually leave you behind. That’s what these parents are facing up to. These parents are so resilient, they weather one crisis after another and they’re still standing.”
The play’s Australian setting caused some debate between its creators over whether the accents and characters would transfer to a British audience when Frantic and State Theatre Company tour the play in London from September with a new cast.
Bovell says the decision landed on taking an Adelaide story to London because of its origins and its likeliness to resonate.
“We are going to take this Adelaide story to London. There’s a universality to the story that people will relate to in London as they relate to it here,” he says.
Speaking to Review at one of the first rehearsals with the full company, Bovell is excited about the physical approach taken to the work by Frantic’s Graham. Australians had a taste of Frantic’s style in 2010 with the Sydney Theatre Company co-production Stockholm, which critics said was physically punishing for the actors, bringing strong dance elements to writer Bryony Lavery’s script in telling the story of a Swedish-obsessed couple and their mutually destructive relationship.
Rehearsals for Things I Know to Be True have included two hours of fitness sessions every morning before the actors turned to the script. Bovell initially was concerned about how to write for the play’s physicality but was assured that he should stick to his method and allow Frantic to interpret his words.
Bovell says while he had established an international audience for his work with When the Rain Stops Falling, Frantic’s promotion of Things I Know to Be True has attracted international attention in a way that the Adelaide company alone could not achieve.
“Because Frantic is a London-based company, when they release their program the rest of the world checks it out, so there’s been a lot of response to that. I wish the international companies would look more at what we’re doing here but London’s London and there’s a certain amount of focus and attention,’’ Bovell says.
“This is a new production and you want to see that reach its full potential before you see it have another life, and this is going to be a curious production because of the Frantic Assembly movement element. I think it will be really wonderful.”
Bovell’s wish is that international companies should look more closely at Australia and its “renaissance” of theatre under the guidance of a smart, new generation of writers. He says other companies such as Sydney’s Belvoir are also making challenging work of an equal standard to companies in the US and Britain. But there was still a problem of stories being told by a narrow group of writers.
“If you are a white male in this country, you still have greater access than if you fall outside of that paradigm. That’s a fact and that’s one that the theatre culture has to take on board to find gender parity, and we have to become increasingly diverse to tell the stories and put them on stage.”
Bovell says Australian audiences want big, bold, ambitious storytelling in all its diversity and they demand quality because they’re paying $100 a ticket for live performances. “If the theatre’s good, people will come. There’s nothing worse than bad theatre but Australian plays do very well at the box office,” he says.
Bovell says his newest story, albeit written by a white male about middle Australia, has all the sadness and humour that a family contains, exploring the patterns of sibling rivalry and parents’ interaction.
“They’re a great couple, Bob and Fran, they’ve got a volatile but very committed marriage and during the course of the play their history is revealed. These parents are so resilient, they weather one crisis after another and they’re still standing at the end of it.
“I think there’s a lot of my dad in this character but I haven’t understood how much. He’s certainly a quintessentially Australian father.
“I think it’s very affirming. There’s no doubt that it’s pretty tragic in its outcome and we don’t pull away from just how profoundly sad that loss is, but it’s very affirming about the capacity to love and to be loved,” Bovell says.
Things I Know to Be True premieres at the Adelaide Festival Theatre from May 13 until June 4, then moves to Canberra from June 8, before touring six British theatres until November 26.
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