Every Brilliant Thing
Barrow Street Theatre
17 January 2015
Depression and suicide are not obvious themes for life-affirming, interactive theatrical ventures but they turn out to be just what the theatre-goer ordered in the exquisitely performed and supremely joyful Every Brilliant Thing currently playing at the Barrow Street Theatre off-Broadway.
Devised by Duncan Macmillan with the assistance of Jonny Donahoe and other collaborators (through workshops and performances arranged by the UK’s Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Companies), this strikes one as one of those every-performance-is-different creations. Much depends upon the audience, its capacity to get involved and participate and its ability to go with the flow, especially into the darkest corners of the theatrical terrain.
There is one performer, Donahoe. He busies himself before the play starts, randomly selecting audience members and gaining their agreement to perform tasks. Mine was to say, into a microphone, at the point where he said a particular number, 1427, words to the effect of ‘the joy of spending money overseas where all currency looks like Monopoly money”. This was a thought which instantly resonated with me; it was a thought I often had, especially in the USA.
Donahoe had made me feel relaxed. I could do my part of the immersive activity. I was comfortable – everyone else would do the real work, whatever that was. As I looked around to all the other audience members clutching bits of papers and smiling, I felt instinctively that they felt as I did. Safe.
The notion at the heart of the play is simple enough. Donahoe tells “his” tale – it’s not clear if it’s autobiographical or not, but it doesn’t matter. For the drama, the story is his, about him. And it starts when he is seven and his mother attempts to take her own life.
I can think of few grimmer ways to commence a genial theatrical experience.
But Donahoe pulls it off effortlessly. His child-like enthusiasm and demeanour in these early scenes is sheer delight. He tells us how he coped – by writing down a list of all the Brilliant Things that make life wonderful, starting, obviously, with Ice Cream. So he calls out numbers and audience members read out the Brilliant Thing he has pre-selected them to read.
This is particularly interesting. Some people are bold, some shy, some like the limelight, some don’t. But they all do it. Just as he, as a seven year old, had to cope, so do they. Those without a piece of paper relax, enjoy the reactions of their fellows.
Then, unexpectedly, Donahoe picks out the man in front of me to be the kind local vet. Tension grips the room. What might I be asked to do? everyone simultaneously asks themselves. Get on with it and cope is the answer that becomes clear.
Donahoe uses The Man In Front in a short scene about his first experience of death, the Vet having to put down Donahoe’s faithful dog. It’s a touching and funny scene. Of course, The Man In Front does not know what to do, so there are some laughs but Donahoe guides him through.
There follows scenes with audience members playing Donahoe’s Dad, his University lecturer, the girl he meets in the library and eventually marries and, most importantly, the teacher who gives him guidance at school. She is a particular marvel – a sensible woman who lets children speak freely by taking off her boots and using a sock as a hand puppet as a communication tool.
This section could fall flat easily, but on this day the woman Donahoe selected was unzipping her boot before he even completed the sentence. She threw herself whole-heartedly into helping little-boy Donahoe through his confusion about his mother’s emotional state. Sock Woman was incredible.
By this time, there was a palpable sense building in the audience – what can I do to help here? And that, of course, is the point. To show that suicide and depression are everywhere, can touch anyone, and that we can all do something to help those who suffer.
Donahoe’s list of Brilliant Things is put away, then re-discovered and built upon, then put away again when he marries Library Girl. But then depression comes visiting him, and things fall apart. Library Girl loves him but can’t stay with him and she reminds him of the list of Every Brilliant Thing.
He keeps adding to the list, and it gets bigger and bigger, with never a single repeated thought on the list. Music is a key part of the list, and we share in Donahoe’s elcetic passion for vinyl records and their unique sound.
Then something really terrible happens, which is described in clinical, dispassionate detail. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the House at that point. But this event drives Donahoe onwards, and his list of Brilliant Things eventually reaches the One Million mark.
One Million Brilliant Things to demonstrate why life is worth living, and fighting for.
Then the play is over. Silence descends as, for the first time, darkness covers the auditorium.
Thunderous applause follows – and rightly so.
Donahoe’s skill and effortless charisma has been inspirational. The play has shown, brightly and clearly, how no one is immune from the possibility of depression or thoughts of suicide and that everyone should be on the lookout – because everyone can help.
The piece is directed by George Perrin, but Donahoe improvises quite a lot, depending on the audience. So the work has an effervescent spontaneity about it which is utterly captivating. There is just as much to laugh and smile about as there is to think deeply about.
A unique and worthwhile theatrical experience. It will make your heart sing.
Do anything to see it.